Saturday, September 30, 2006

Saturday Night Music Club

Welcome to the first edition of Saturday Night Music Club, which will become a regular feature of Dave's Part if it finds with any popularity at all.

Given that a fair proportion of my known readership are fully paid-up music bores, the idea is to take a weekly break from the depressing state of British and world politics and just have a friendly chat about good grooves.

The inaugural topic is this: who is the greatest female vocalist of all time? After a long think, I have gone for Dinah Washington, who finishes just ahead of Aretha Franklin, with Irma Thomas coming third.

Washington - real name: Ruth Lee Jones - was born in Alabama in 1924, but joined the pre-war mass migration of blacks from the Deep South to Chicago as a child, and by her mid teens was working that city's club circuit as a vocalist.

She got her big break working with Lionel Hampton between 1943-46, before commencing to cut sides under her own name. Stylistically, she was a one-woman revolution, doing more than anybody except possible Ray Charles to bring gospel phrasing and tonal variations into popular music. Do whatever it takes to obtain a copy of the album pictured, Dinah Jams. It is sublime.

In the best tradition of such things, Dinah had a hard life. She married several times and struggled with alcoholism, dying before she hit 40.

Over to you now. Who would you rate as the best-ever female vocalist? Was I wrong to keep Aretha off the top spot? Anybody want to make a case for the second rank soul sisters? Or even Kylie Minogue, if you really, really must ...

How leftwing was Tony Blair as a student?

Blogging will be light this weekend and next, as I am doing a course on mathematics for economists at Birkbeck. I haven't touched a maths book since scraping the minimum O-level pass thirty years ago, and they reckon that by next Sunday I'll be able to do calculus. We shall see. As of now, I have only the foggiest idea of what calculus even is.

Other than solving tetranomial equations, the highlight of the day came after the lecturer let slip a throwaway line that he was an Oxford contemporary of Tony Blair, and that both he and Blair had been members of something called 'St John's Hard Left Caucus'.

Naturally I collared him in the lunch break, and discovered that he is an ex-IMGer, and that the said caucus included people of political viewpoints ranging from Labour left through CPGB to Trotskyist.

The received wisdom on Blair's student days - the pic top left dates from the period - is that while he associated with the left, he never joined any factions. A quick google throws up a feature article on the Telegraph website, based on interviews with Blair's student pals:

'Colin Meade, leader of the hard Left caucus at St John's, remembers: "He was very conscious of keeping his nose clean. He would dress up in silly clothes [a disreputable coat is particularly remembered] and hang around with Lefties but he had a sense, if not of his own destiny, of his own importance."'

Which I think is a polite way of saying that Blair was an arrogant tosser, even then. But was Blair a member of SJHLC, comrade? Meade doesn't actually say he wasn't. Fascinating. I shall ask my new acquaintance more questions tomorrow.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Turner quizzed in cash for honours probe

Ruth Turner – Blair’s director of government relations – is the latest New Labourite to have been questioned by police in connection with the cash for honours probe.

I don't know a lot about this woman, who only got involved in Labour financing after I finished my book on the subject. So I'd be grateful for any information from those who have had dealings with her.

Meanwhile, party treasurer Jack Dromey is sticking to a ‘no comment’ stance. Which, as any journalist will tell you, is something of a first.

Friday open thread

After the relative success of last week's experiment, I thought I'd have another bash at a Friday open thread. The suggested theme is impressions of the Labour Party conference, with anecdotes from attendees especially welcome.

But you, dear readers, have the floor. And yes, there will be posts from yours truly later in the day.

Oh, and henceforth, Saturdays will feature a regular music slot. Just so you know what to expect.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Cruddas blog update

Labour deputy leadership hopeful Jon Cruddas hasn't really entered into the cut and thrust of this newfangled blogging malarkey. In the two days since his campaign blog has been available online, we have yet to see a second post or indeed a second comment.

New Labour blogger Jo Salmon - who appears to be one of those clever people who actually know about 'pooters and stuff - has come up with a plausible explanation for this:

'It’s quite likely that this is actually - wait for it… - a preview of his site and we shouldn’t be seeing it yet.'

It all gets highly techie after that, concluding with the recommendation to 'use the ‘clean post slugs’ rather than the p=3 slugs…'. Whatever that means.

Talking of new political parties

For Captain Sensible, it was all so easy. He just found sponsorship from a crisp manufacturer and went ahead with the launch of Britain's newest political organisation.

If only life was that simple for the far left. After writing the post below, I wondered what the hell the Campaign for a New Workers' Party - an initiative launched earlier this year - was up to.

The website seems fairly inactive, with no new material since June. However, there was a rally in Manchester after the demo in Manchester last Saturday. Speakers were Dave Nellist, Dr Jackie Grunsell and Janice Godrich, all members of Socialist Party.

Hint, guys: you're supposed to include a token independent or two on such platforms. Just to make it look a bit broader than it is at the moment, you know.

There are also plans to field council candidates in Liverpool next year. Tony Mulhearn - deputy leader of Liverpool council under Derek Hatton - tells the Liverpool Daily Post:

'This retains the values from Militant. It is about going back to what the Labour party stood for when it was first formed.

'It's about Clause Four, it's about having adequate pensions that people can live comfortably on and bringing in a minimum wage that is in line with the rest of Europe.'

Meanwhile, if you're the kind of comrade that considers that sort of talk nothing but a rotten capitulation to reformism - and there's plenty that do - then you'll be pleased to hear of the launch of the Campaign for a New Marxist Party in London on Saturday November 4.

Details can be had by emailing No Popular Front for the Liberation of Judea jokes, please.

Oh, and let's not forget that Respect is holding its conference on the weekend of October 14-15. There are already complaints from some affiliates that the agenda is being tightly controlled.

UPDATE: You can find a report on the CNWP meeting - and other fringe events in Manchester - at David Broder's blog here.

Captain Sensible launches new political party

One Saturday night in late 1976, a long-haired, flare wearing teenage Led Zep fan went to watch the Damned play a gig in Northampton. They were the first punk outfit ever to hit the town. That's the sleeve of their debut album pictured on the left.

Neat neat neat. After 20 minutes – yeah, the entire set only lasted as long as the average Jimmy Page guitar solo – of the loudest and most brutal adrenaline rush rock and roll I had ever heard in my young life, I came out resolved to get a hair cut and buy drainpipes as soon as the shops opened on Monday morning.

Fast forward three decades. About a year ago, a certain fishnet and DM-clad bottle blonde ex-punkette and I witnessed the shambolic outfit that trades under the same name these days, playing at The Town and Country.

Dreadful. The punk pioneers had degenerated into what is basically a comedy nostalgia turn.

Now I read on Socialist Unity Blog – where else? - that the band’s original bassist, Captain Sensible, has launched the Blah! Party. You can read the organisation’s policies here.

Hmmmm. Hardly the transitional programme, is it? The politics are as poor as his music is nowadays. Surely what is needed is a new political formation that combines revolutionary socialism with punk rock energy?

This would have a better name, for a start. How about the Combat Rockers? Or the Never Mind the Bollocks Coalition?

Our platform: Anarchy for the UK. Alternative Ulster. Your Generation (don’t mean a thing to me). We have the right to work. Sing if you’re glad to be gay.

Free copy of NME and gram of amphetamine sulphate - dissolved in a bottle of Strongbow - per group of four bored provincial teenagers every Saturday night, so that they don't have to club together their dole money to buy it.

Most members would have a direct personal interest in fighting New Labour's plans to raise the pension age.

And no airplay whatsoever for Blunt, Melua and Winehouse. Got it?

Aslef barred from Labour conference

If you needed (yet more) proof of the increasing distance between the New Labour and organised labour, it appears that a delegation from the train drivers’ union Aslef was refused entry to this week’s party conference in Manchester.

Most of the mainstream media doesn’t find this newsworthy. The only report I’ve come across is a single paragraph in today’s Independent:

‘The Aslef rail union delegation hit the train home after spending a frustrating fruitless five days trying to get a hold of their conference passes. A union source, furious at not getting near the conference, said that they would be billing the Labour high command for the wasted hotel costs.’

An Aslef activist supplies a few additional details in a letter to the Weekly Worker, pointing out that the union donated £43,000 to Blair and Co last year:

‘Despite frantic phone calls to all and sundry, including John Prescott and Hazel Blears, as of writing (Tuesday) they still haven’t got in. The Labour Party blame a computer error, but say they cannot remedy it, as the police are in charge of who gets delegate’s passes.

‘So a national union delegation is barred from conference, disenfranchising 18,000 train drivers and leaving the TSSA as the only rail union on the conference floor.

‘Nice to see democracy is alive and well in the people’s party. I doubt the CBI and associated businessmen were similarly debarred.’

Funny. I thought Aslef were considered cuddly since they got shot of Mick Rix.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Jon Cruddas to run for Labour deputy

Jon Cruddas has this afternoon confirmed speculation that he going for the Labour number two job.

Earlier posts on this blog suggest he has the support of some commenters as the acceptable face of soft leftism, after making some suitable ‘I’m disgruntled with Blairism’ type noises.

True, he has some plus points. These include working class upbringing - rather rare for a Labour politician these days - plus an impressive academic track record, and the fact he rebelled on the tuition fees vote.

I occasionally used to speak to him on the phone when I worked for Tribune and he worked at Walworth Road. He returned my calls and was never deliberately obstructive, which is more than can be said for some of ‘em.

On the other hand, he has since worked in Blair’s office, so he will presumably have had all that ‘decent human being’ crap beaten out of him.

Verdict; best of a bad bunch declared so far. But Dave’s Part is not endorsing him yet.

UPDATE: Guess what? Cruddas is blogging. They all have to these days. Here’s how he starts his first post:

‘This is my first time as a blogger, and I am not going to pretend that I am going to be good at it straight away – but please do your give me tips and suggestions in the comments section.

‘I wanted to write this blog – despite not really knowing one end of a computer from the other – because I have seen how people can be genuinely connected through the non-stop conversation blogging allows. I will do my best to respond to your feedback and engage with your thoughts on this site as we go.’

I’ve left this comment:

‘So is this going to be a real blog, Jon, or just a sanitised Miliband style affair? Do you really want political debate and dialogue, or are you just going to censor even the most mildly critical postings?

‘OK, here's a starter. Do you answer to the description 'socialist'? And if so, what does the word mean to you?’

I’ll let you know if it gets past moderation or not.

Alex Callinicos: 'Victory to (some of) the Resistance!'

Is the SWP’s top theoretician backtracking – albeit perhaps partially - on the party’s ‘Victory to the Resistance!’ line on Iraq? I only ask after seeing the latest edition of Iran Bulletin, which carries an interview on Middle East issues with Alex Callinicos.

The Professor goes so far as to brand Al Zarqawi’s ‘Al Qae’da in Iraq’ outfit as ‘sectarian terrorists’. That is exactly what they are, of course. It’s just that I’ve never heard any SWPer admit as much, especially not in writing:

‘The case of Iraq has to be mentioned separately because it is so complex. Here the resistance, which appears to be a loose collection of Iraqi Ba’athists, nationalists, and Islamists based mainly in the Sunni Arab areas have succeeded in mounting a counter-insurgency war that, to repeat, the US shows no sign of winning. (It is essential to distinguish the mainstream of this resistance from the sectarian terrorists of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, formed by the late and unlamented Zarqawi.).’

So we can afford to be choosy, after all. And yet this is the same Zarqawi who was so admiringly profiled in Socialist Worker last October:

‘Al-Zarqawi is the ultimate product of Al Qaidism, the new anti-imperialist ideology which has risen from the ashes of Al Qaida,’ we read.

This year’s sectarian terrorist was at that time hailed as ‘the new icon of anti-Western struggle’ and praised for ‘his determination to challenge authority’ and – get this - ‘his kindness’.

In fairness, Ms Napoleoni is not an SWP member and of course, not all articles that appear in a newspaper necessarily reflect the editorial line.

But Callinicos’s realisation that the far left should not indiscriminately hail every mutha that picks up and AK-47 and declares himself an anti-imperialist is welcome, if a little overdue. Logically, shouldn’t his doubts extend to the rest of AQ?

[Hat tip: Harry’s Place]

UPDATE: As a couple of commenters point out, Callinicos has indeed said something similar before, albeit in a US magazine rather than any in any SWP or IST publication. My bad. But as an interesting debate has started rolling in the comments box, I'll leave the post up.

Poll: how well will McDonnell do?

If Newsnight can organise a poll that quizzes a pathetic 30 punters on the Labour leadership contest and tout the outcome as somehow meaningful, Dave's Part can do even better.

So on the righthand column below the links, you have the chance to voice an opinion on what percentage of the electoral college John McDonnell - pictured left - is going to secure when the votes are finally counted. The comments box is also open.

I reckon he will surprise many, provided only that he gets on the ballot paper. My money is on 10-20%. What do you think?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

John Pilger on Latin America

Twenty years ago, I decided to become a journalist because of my admiration for Paul Foot, John Pilger and Christopher Hitchens. In that order.

Using the mainstream media to put over socialist ideas to millions of people– and these day I am lucky enough to get that chance about a dozen times a year – offers a lot more bang for the buck than any number of Saturday paper sales.

Any remotely serious leftwing party would be running a 24/7 media operation. It’s noticeable that Respect do not even try.

As I started to develop my own political thinking, I developed divergences with the arguments advanced by the Holy Trinity of leftie hacks. But just like you never stop listening to the music you listened to in your teens, I couldn’t stop loving their writing.

Foot is now dead, of course, while the Hitch’s politics place him on the hard right rather than the hard left.

That leaves Pilger- pictured above left - as arguably the last remaining superstar socialist journalist. OK, I’m well aware of his now notorious ‘cannot afford to be choosy’ comments backing the insurgency in Iraq.

However, that stance is mainstream far left orthodoxy. The position is utterly wrong, by the lights of any kind of conception of socialism from below. Yet he obviously holds to it sincerely, and that makes him no better and no worse than hundreds of thousands of other misguided people that still merit the label of ‘comrade’.

Pilger has produced a new film, under the name ‘The war on democracy’, which will shortly get a cinema release. Much of the focus is on Latin America, and there is an interview with him [in Spanish] on the BBC Mundo website.

Pilger’s assessment of developments on the continent are broadly the same as mine.He kicks off with a broad endorsement for Morales in Bolivia, without going over the top:

‘I think there’s no way he’s a radical … I think he’s an indigenous social democrat and somewhat conservative in many aspects.’

The middle classes in Venezuela are compared to the white minority in apartheid South Africa, driving Ferraris while forgetting about the poverty that surrounds them.

The rich, says Pilger, ‘still have control of the economy, apart from oil, but they would prefer to control the government’. If anything, he maintain, reforms are not proceeding rapidly enough.

But there are brickbats for Bachelet and Lula:

‘[The US] likes Chile very much and they describe it as a model of democracy that, of course, is implementing a fierce neoliberal economic model.

‘They like Brazil, because Lula is doing much the same. These are, in the words of Washington, acceptable democracies.’

‘The war on democracy’ will be shown on ITV in April or May 2007.

Labour leadership: Reid in the lead

The McDonnell campaign has just issued a press release under the slightly breathless headine ‘McDonnell matches Brown in poll and calls for televised debate between Reid, Brown and McDonnell’. Sounds good, until you read the small print:

‘BBC Newsnight commissioned US pollster Frank Luntz to ask 30 voters who they preferred out of six potential candidates for the Labour leadership – Gordon Brown, John Reid, John McDonnell, Alan Johnson, Alan Milburn, and David Miliband. The participants were presented with biographies, speeches and interviews of the candidates.

‘The results were as follows: John Reid: 17; John McDonnell: 3; Gordon Brown: 3. No participant expressed support for Alan Milburn, David Miliband or Alan Johnson.’

With a sample of just 30 people, the poll is pretty meaningless. The bloke with most to shout about is Britain’s minister of the interior, pictured above left, surely? Can he really be that popular? And is Brown really playing that badly?

Here’s the attempted soundbite:

‘John said: "There isn’t a case in the recent political history of this country where an unknown politician has come from nowhere to become one of the frontrunners for the premiership, surpassing high-profile Cabinet ministers.’

Hmmmm. Such rhetoric is rather reminiscent of Respect and all that jive about ‘best electoral performance by a party to the left of Labour since the second world war’. It’s not strictly speaking incorrect, but it is rather missing the point.

‘This means that our campaign of sticking to the policies and avoiding personalities is succeeding. Despite a virtual newspaper blackout of our campaign, our strategy of going on the stomp around the country, talking to as many people as possible is really working. There is now real hope of a radical change of political direction for our party and our country.’

No there isn’t. Don’t get me wrong. I hate to rain on the Labour left’s parade, and I do want McDonnell to do well. But some of his younger aides really seem to believe we are on the verge of a socialist government. I fear they are in for a disappointment. Let’s keep it real.

Monday, September 25, 2006

New Labour: pimp my conference

Peter Mandelson - pictured left - has opened his trap again, making it clear that New Labour interest in trade unions is restricted to cashing their affiliation cheques

‘[Unions] feel they have been shut out of the party but that was their choice to reject New Labour,’ the EU commissioner told a Progress rally.

Hello? It wasn’t the unions that voluntarily reduced themselves to the status of one lobby among many others, with an auxiliary role as unpaid health and safety inspectors.

New Labour walked out on the marriage like a fortysomething bloke at the height of his midlife crisis, dumping its former partner in favour of a particularly meretricious floozy called the business community. And, like most guys in this situation, it will do whatever it takes to keep the trophy bride happy.

While almost all critical resolutions from constituency parties have once again been spiked this year, GMEX will essentially revert to type and host what is essentially a glorified trade fair, as this report in FT makes plain. Business will get free rein to make its case:

‘Companies will be present in greater numbers - and will spend more - at next week's gathering in Manchester than at either the Tory or Liberal Democrat events, despite Mr Cameron's opinion poll lead …

‘The number of companies sponsoring fringe events at the Conservatives' conference in Bournemouth later this month has jumped to 25, compared with 18 last year before Mr Cameron was elected. A further 10 business bodies are paying for exhibition stands.

‘But the corporate influence will be stronger in Manchester. Almost 20 companies and trade organisations will have exhibition stands at Labour's event, paying £3,300 to £12,875 each - plus £850 to £1,000 if they want a banner to distinguish their stand from the dozens of others.

‘Labour refuses to issue its fringe programme before the conference opens. But analysis of events already publicised shows at least 30 companies are sponsoring one or more fringes.

‘Last week's Lib Dem gathering in Brighton, by comparison, could muster only about five corporate stands …

‘The political parties stress the PR and lobbying potential of the conferences when they tout for corporate backing. The Lib Dem brochure for exhibitors, for example, pledges that "our parliamentarians [MPs] will be making daily tours of the exhibition - photos will be available for purchase in the business lounge".

‘One industry PR describes this use of stands as "good slap and dash press work. . .you get the minister down, give them a drink and take a photo".’

The corporatisation of all three major party conferences is simply the thin end of the cash-for-access wedge.

Little wonder that are widely regarded as rigged fruit machines that pay out every time. And being in office, New Labour is the one that guarantees bigger pay-outs for a line of cherries.

Labour NHS cuts: a gift to the BNP

Labour’s massive plans cuts in the NHS – see earlier posts on the site – are playing into the hands of the British National Party, Labour leadership contender John McDonnell - pictured left - has warned.

For instance, one of the accident and emergency departments targeted for early closure is in Burnley. As McDonnell points out, such a move is a gift to the racist party’s efforts to build itself in Lancashire. Here’s a press release from his campaign team:

‘The BNP exploited the news that 600 health workers were losing their jobs in and around Barking in the run up to this years local elections and have tried to move in on hospital campaigns in Worthing, Sutton and Dover in the past few weeks.

‘In Stoke, a BNP Councillor now chairs the Health Scrutiny Committee.

‘John McDonnell said:

‘"I am urging delegates to the party conference to give their full support to the Trade Union motion on cuts and privatisation in the NHS. It would be yet another kick in the teeth for Labour democracy if the motion is forced off the agenda.

‘"Not only is the current policy wrong but it is alienating core Labour supporter in areas as far afield as Burnley and Hastings in their hundreds of thousands and the racist BNP are moving in to exploit that anger at street level.

‘"When the Labour Party slides behind the Tories in the poll ratings on the NHS you know that you are in trouble and ploughing on with the cuts and privatisation programme under the guise of ‘modernisation’ is both electoral suicide and a gift to the fascists."’

He’s right. As things stand, the BNP is the only political force that consistently courts the alienated white working class, and rejects the kind of liberal wishful thinking that believes that class division has simply been administered away.

But instead of offering answers, the far right offers only scapegoats. It’s it the job of the far left to put forward the kind of consistent socialist and anti-racist politics that are the only means to check the BNP’s progress.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Back to the 1980s

After 25 years of involvement in leftwing politics, I'd just like to take the chance to reflect briefly on some of the dramatic changes we have all witnessed since the early eighties.

When I first arrived in London as a young student in September 1981, the capital was of course in the grip of a bombing campaign mounted by religiously-inspired terrorists.

In the Middle East, there was a growing insurgency in Afghanistan, while Iran was under the sway of a charismatic leader hostile to US interests. A Muslim had just tried to assassinate the Pope, while the following year, Israel was to launch a brutal offensive on southern Lebanon.

Back at home, the Labour Party was split down the middle on factional lines, and clearly on the path to losing the next election, despite the unpopularity of the Conservatives, while the far left was splintered to the point where it lacked all credibility with the working class.

Yes, those certainly were the days.

Clare Short: Labour voter?

Clare Short and the Labour Party seem likely to part company, well, er … shortly, so to speak. So there will be no harm done if I break a confidence I have been sitting on for a couple of years.

I did know Clare a little while I worked for Tribune. Indeed, one of the main television news broadcasts accompanied the story of her ‘ashamed of Labour’ outburst with decade-old footage of her and yours truly chatting while entering Conway Hall.

But I have known her younger sister Eileen rather longer, ever since she was in the Militant Tendency back in the eighties.

The last time I ran in to Eileen was at Paul Foot’s funeral back in 2004, where I learned that had gotten involved in Respect and thereafter had joined the SWP.

And one of the off-the-cuff remarks she made to me was: ‘Things are so bad, nobody in my family even votes Labour anymore.’

Little wonder that Clare is stepping down as a Labour MP, I suppose. Meanwhile, the Birmingham Post speculates that she could soon be signing up with the Lib Dems.

C’mon Clare. You can do better than that.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Friday open thread

Hey, it's Friday. And my desire to post every day has run into the unusual necessity to put in 13 hours at the day job. So, in emulation of a move pioneered by several other blogs, I hereby declare this an open thread. I'll probably regret it later.

For Enver Hoxha there is no death

If there was ever a contest to decide the most repressive Stalinist dictatorship of all time, Enver Hoxha’s Albania - flag pictured left - would probably finish a close second to Cambodia under Pol Pot. During the old monster’s years at the top, one in three Albanians either spent time in a labour camp or were interrogated by the secret police.

Kinda shows up the Stasi and the Securitate for the lightweights they were. I doubt even the USSR in the thirties could boast a statistic like that.

Citizens were systematically denied freedom of expression, movement and association, despite explicit constitutional guarantees of these rights. Freedom of religion? Anyone caught with a copy of the Bible or the Koran faced a long prison sentence.

Yet in most countries in the West, there were small groups of ‘Marxist-Leninists’ prepared to make the case that Albania was all that heaven will allow. To the limited extent I ever came across such people in the British labour movement, they were mainly geriatric supertankies. The sad thing is, it looks like some of these outfits still exist, or at least maintain an internet presence.

For instance, go here and click on the picture of EH himself. You get taken directly to an article titled ‘For Enver Hoxha there is no death’. Funny. I could have sworn he kicked the bucket in 1985. But I digress. Read the article:

‘Leaders like Enver Hoxha come rarely. They are thrown up by great epochs and have as their mission the revolutionary transformation of the world. Such was Enver, whose influence was so powerful that the time in which he lived and worked may justly be called the epoch of Enver.’

Meanwhile, if you seek the best in Enver appreciation to be found anywhere on the worldwide web, this is the place to point your browser. It’s spectacular stuff. I can particularly recommend the video clip ‘With Stalin 1947’ , as well as the funeral footage.

Thinking about it, probably one of the few plus points for the twenty-first century far left is governments of the type Albania endured were historical one-offs that are unlikely to occur ever again.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Balfour Beatty: blacklisting trade union activists?

The practice of employers running 'blacklists' - lists of trade union activists and workers with leftist political affiliations, in order to vet job applicants - was commonplace until comparatively recently.

The best-known organisation of this kind was an extreme rightwing grouping known as the Economic League, which operated from 1919 until officially being wound up in 1993. It kept records on around 20,000 people.

Most of them weren't hardcore Leninist cadre. In many cases, they were simply people who may have, say, attended a few Communist Party meetings or handed out leaflets on a picket line. Still others were victims of mistaken identity.

Some, of course, were paid-up commies, anarchists or Trots. But so what? Being a member of a far left organisation wasn't against the law last time I checked.

But however names ended up on the files, the end result was the same. Working class people were denied employment opportunities and thus the chance to provide for themselves and their families.

When the Economic League formally shut up shop, I was working as a journalist on a couple of radical newspapers. Presumably because they thought I might be interested in the story, person or persons anonymous sent me details of a new company called Caprim Ltd, set up by former Economic League personnel and obviously in the same line of work. It was a nice little scoop for me at the time.

Caprim seems to have been functioning as late as 2000. But I've just checked on the Companies House website and there is no record that the company still exists or, indeed, ever existed. Never mind. I still have a microfilm of its details sitting in a box file for the sake of posterity.

Now there are renewed claims that blacklisting continues in the building industry, always one of its main bastions. Alan Wainwright is a former manager with Haden Young, a subsidiary of construction major Balfour Beatty, and is in the process of taking the company to an Employment Tribunal, alleging constructive dismissal.

The case is likely to be heard in Birmingham in November. Mr Wainwright says that he will provide proof that the company operates a blacklisting procedure, and several victims are reportedly willing to back his allegations. Meanwhile, he taken to writing a blog, on which he has actually published some of the blacklists concerned. This is what he has this to say:

'I have reasonable grounds to believe that certain UK construction companies and their mechanical and electrical subsidiaries operate a blacklisting procedure to ensure certain electrical operatives do not gain employment on their projects. This is based on procedures I have undertaken in the workplace in previous roles ...

'I am therefore very interested to hear from any electricians, especially those on the lists, who have experienced difficulty in gaining or maintaining employment on any Carillion plc, Crown House Engineering, Drake and Scull Engineering, Balfour Beatty plc, Balfour Kilpatrick, Haden Young or ... other project over the last six years.'

Anybody that can help his case should contact him through the website.

Oh, and for those that don't know them, Balfour Beatty is of course a major beneficiary of PFI, and is part of the Metronet joint venture that runs about 75% of the London Underground network.

[Hat top: Freedom, the excellent anarchist fortnightly]

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Sir Malcolm Rifkind and the Baghdad Boom

They call it ‘the Baghdad Boom’. The mounting death toll in Iraq has been created a market worth an estimated $2bn for around 100 local and 70 Iraqi-owned private security companies.

And until now, one of the biggest beneficiaries has been UK-listed ArmorGroup, chaired by a former Thatcher cabinet minister and Tory leadership hopeful.

But the bad news for Sir Malcolm Rifkind – pictured left, and still MP for ultrasafe Kensington & Chelsea - is that profit margins in that country have declined in the face of tough competition. That’s the workings of a free market for you.

His gloom can only be slightly lifted by cheering thoughts that conflict is worsening in some other countries in the world, according to this report in the FT [subscription required]:

‘The worsening security situation in Nigeria and new contracts in Afghanistan helped ArmorGroup lift sales by 30 per cent in the first six months of the year.

‘However, the end of a lucrative Iraqi training contract and higher administrative costs meant profits fell at the private security company, chaired by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary.’

ArmorGroup's chief executive Dave Seaton chooses to accentuate the positive:

‘"The situation in Nigeria is significantly worse than before … There have been 24 kidnapping incidents this year. We are no longer a discretionary spend."’

In fairness, I should just add that Sir Malcolm did vocally oppose the war in 2003. Not that it has stopped him trousering his share of the subsequent booty.

Exclusive: Amicus plans to shaft T&G

Amicus officials seem pretty damn confident that they will secure every single one of the top jobs when their union merges with the T&G early in 2007, and are surprisingly sure that they will win elections that will not be held for several years. The spirit of good old EETPU's legendary machine politics lives on, and membership views hardly seem to matter.

That seems to be the only conclusion to draw after reading this transcript of meeting addressed by Amicus deputy general secretary Graham Goddard and Chris Weldon, the union’s national political officer. Organised by the Amicus Unity left faction, it was held at South Shields Town Hall on July 6.

‘Derek [Simpson, Amicus leader] has decided to put me into the position of being the next general secretary of the union,’ Goddard boasts. ‘The succession policy is well underway. It has been discussed at the highest possible level and cannot be stopped.’

Nevertheless, he is clearly anticipating a bit of a scrap: ‘There is no way that the T&G wants an Amicus general secretary to run the new union and there is no way that Amicus wants Woodley to run the new union and we are not going to give the reins to Woodley.

‘We are now at the level of how we are going to work out how to get an Amicus general secretary to take over the merged union and how to have all 12 regions controlled by Amicus regional secretaries.’

I reprint edited extracts exactly as they came to me, without tidying up the spelling or grammar. They start with a speech from Goddard, before moving on to a question and answer session. Warning. If you a TGWU bureaucrat with a dodgy ticker, do not read on:

If you take the analysis about the merger position outlined by Derek to the NEC then we have to get our people in position so that the T&G do not take control of the new union.

If you take the senior management position then Derek has 3 and-a- half years to go before retirement; Doug Collins will retire at the same time. Then you have Ed Sweeny of UNIFI and Tony Dubbins.

The agreement has been made that when Tony goes Ed has agreed to go at the same time and Tony retires early next year. So if you look at things at the senior management level you will see that going into the merger the senior management team will be way down on the numbers its all about politics and political power. People know this and its all about how people are replaced …

The other side of it is when you look at the position around the two women assistant general secretaries. One of these Gail Cartmell who has been criticised because she suffers from ex-SWP-iteis but is now seen as a right winger and we are not going to knock that but she heads up the public sector in the health sector.

… We have never had a woman in the senior management team since Lucy Kelly or Anderson if you knew her who was an Assistant General Secretary who left last year. Since then we have not had a woman in the senior management team and we have been criticised for that. We have corrected this now but we need to face up to the equalities issue inside the new union as well.

If there is one thing the T&G has not got a good structure on it is the equalities thing this and if you look at the T&G you will see that they are in a far weaker position than we are and so we can see that we will be able to appeal more with a woman in the senior management team.

So thats one side of the issue the other side of it is that Derek has decided to put me into the position of being the next General Secretary of the union. Now people might say why should Goddard be the next General Secretary, whats he ever done. Well this is one reason Im here tonight and other Unity meetings over the next few months and thats why Im doing this now because time is short and I need to get out and meet people.

Now for a General Secretary to put into place a succession policy while he is still in power is a big plus for democracy [!] and our union because no matter what is said and I and all of us have been through the Jackson era and we are all in a campaigning union now making the members voice heard and the way that democracy is coming and the way the union moves is in total contrast to where we were and we have to take that on board.

I will not be Derek Simpsons clone even though I might sound like him. When I take over [as General Secretary] I will not operate like Derek because we are two different people. The succession policy is well under way its been discussed at the highest possible level and cannot be stopped. All people in the union whether right, left or what have you understand that this is part of the policy that we must look at …

One of the things that the Deputy General Secretary and the appointments people has done is to flush out people like Kevin Coyne and Ian Waddle and Les Bayliss who all want to be general secretary because I want it …

Derek has been criticised for not turning up to Gazette meetings and there are politics around this because the trots have been involved in politics influencing the Gazette and we have spent more time talking about this than talking about things that the Gazette ought to be doing such as union campaigns and we ought to keep that going.

This is a quick synopsis of where we are at now … If I dont get the Gazette candidature to run as next General Secretary and thats to look at inside the merger because there is no way that the T&G want Amicus General Secretary to run the new union and there is no way that Amicus wants Woodley to run the new union and we are not going to give the reins to Woodley.

If Derek goes in 3 and a half years time and Woodley has got another 4 years after that we are NOT [Goddards emphasis] going to hand over the reins to Woodley and thats the big debate at this stage thats going on …

We are now at the level of how we are going to work out how to get an Amicus General Secretary to take over the merged union and how to have all 12 regions controlled by Amicus regional secretaries …

Now that the GMB has gone and this is not the bad thing we would have thought a year ago because the size of the GMB pension fund deficit would have brought down the 3 unions. The deficit is £90 to £120 million but no one knows exactly how much.

Q by a shop steward
So when will the election of General Secretary be

A by Graham Goddard
To be just on with Derek Leaving or retiring in 3 or 3 and a half years time. His birthday is in December and hes 62 now and so its about on time for that

Interjection by shop steward
So its gonna be a long campaign then

A by Graham Goddard
Yea, yea, thats why we are consolidating currently from where I got the DGS job and they said dont go flying about everywhere but obviously people are asking the question and this is why Jeff [Tate] invited me here tonight because of the questions that people have asked me tonight but I am not going to go round everywhere that quick. Its obvious about what you said about it being a long campaign and I have to get the experience of doing the DGS job and Im currently doing a regional secretaries job also. So I had better be careful about what I say as well and not get out of step.

There’s plenty of other interesting stuff in the memo, too, particularly about trade union plans to increase influence in the Labour Party. But as it could provide ammunition for the Tories, I’ll just keep quiet on that score. See what a good comrade I am really?

Oh, and a big thank you to the mole who leaked me the memo. Similar contributions always welcome.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Lib Dems: here comes your 19th non-existent breakthrough

The Liberal Democrats – or the Social and Liberal Democrats, or the SDP/Liberal Alliance, or the plain vanilla Liberal Party – have perpetually been ‘on the verge of a breakthrough’ ever since I was a zealous teenage Bennite who still looked good in tight trousers.

Come to think of it, they’ve probably been on the verge of a breakthrough even longer than that. The Orpington by-election of 1964 springs to mind.

Accordingly, ‘go back to your constituencies and prepare for power’ seems to have been the implicit subtext of every Liberal leader’s conference speech in living memory.

Ahem. It still hasn’t happened, fellas.

It's not that they don't try their best to appeal to as many people as possible. Pinning the Lib Dems down politically is like trying to nail jelly to a wall made of jelly, in front of a partisan audience drawn from the ranks of the National Jelly Protection League.

Are they essentially a party of radical Evan Harrises, arguing against the Iraq war and in favour of both the legalisation of all drugs and the Denis Healey lite demand of taxing the rich until the pips vaguely consider making some kind of sound?

Or are they a bunch of Vince Cable-style Orange Book free marketeers ready to unleash a brand of refried Thatcherism that would gladden the heart of Alan Milburn if they ever made it into coalition talks with either of the other main parties?

Or does it depend on whether they are canvassing in a Labour or a Tory marginal at the time?

Here’s a thought experiment. I have long thought that ballot papers in all British elections should contain a box marked ‘none of the above’.

Where ‘none of the above’ secures a plurality of the votes cast, the election should be held again, with all of the previous candidate debarred.

If that simple reform was ever instituted, I reckon the number of Lib Dem elected representatives would plummet to almost zero.

Edward Leigh on the core Tory vote

Rightwing Tory Edward Leigh - pictured left - reckons that Cameron’s determination to New Labourise the Conservative Party will cost votes, if not the next election itself:

‘"Going too far to attract the floaters is a very high-risk strategy," Mr Leigh said.

‘He bluntly told Mr Cameron that "freezing out" the Tory right wing and the core vote could lead voters to think there was no difference between the main parties.’

It’s probably too late already, mate. But go on:

‘Writing in the parliamentary House Magazine, Mr Leigh said the Bromley and Chislehurst by-election in June, in which the Tory majority of 13,342 was slashed to 633 by the Liberal Democrats, was a warning to those "who in their understandable enthusiasm to reach out to the margins, think we can ride roughshod over the core" …

‘If the 633 voters who enabled the Tories to win in Bromley were persuaded to switch to a fringe party, or simply abstain, then the 'big suburban yawn' will become the yawning jaws of a fourth electoral defeat."’

Leigh is effectively admitting that the Conservatives are still basically Nasty Party of the provincial petty bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, his fears are probably overdone.

Consider New Labour's experience of well over a decade’s sojourn in traditional Tory territory. In England, anyway, most of the disaffected ‘heartland vote’ – the awful euphemism dreamed up by Blairites unable to utter the words ‘working class’ – notably has not gone for the Socialist Labour Party, the Socialist Alliance or Respect, even when it has had the chance. Alienation breeds abstention. Voters stay at home.

The relative success of the Scottish Socialist Party aside, the best efforts of the far left have cost Labour perhaps a handful of seats. There is no reason to suspect that UKIP will have any more success.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Bush's inaction on Darfur: a contradiction for the pro-war left?

The idea of supporting United Nations humanitarian intervention has long been a taboo for the far left. Isn’t such a stance simply a fancy dress version of endorsing the latest imperialist aggression against the third world?

Until the mid nineties, I would have gone with the Trotskyist consensus position. I’ve even argued for it in print. It took 800,000 deaths in the Rwandan genocide before I could bring myself to drop the dead dogma.

Even now, urging UN invasions is not something I do lightly. After all, Bush and Blair have cynically used the rhetoric of liberation – albeit only after all other justifications had failed – to excuse their oil grab in Iraq. Sadly, a section of the left, who really should have known better, took these claims at face value.

But there are occasions when only external forces can stop unspeakable brutality against entire ethnic groups. The current events in Darfur are just such an occasion.

That Bush and Blair are doing absolutely nothing to stop the bloodshed underlines just how mendacious their professed concerns for the Iraqi people have been all along, and how monumentally stupid the pro-war left crew have been to take them at face value.

Today the FT reports that Bush has even scuppered legislation that would have encouraged – not mandated, please note, but merely encouraged – measures to put economic pressure on the Sudanese government:

‘Moves in the US Congress to put financial pressure on Sudan to stop the killings in Darfur have been stymied by big business interests and the Bush administration, according to supporters of legislation blocked in the Senate that would have endorsed decisions by US states to divest from companies involved in Sudan.

‘Tens of billions of dollars in equity are at stake, mostly of non-US companies and including two listed Chinese energy giants involved in Sudan's rapidly growing oil industry which fuels the military with arms and other supplies.

‘While giving rhetorical backing to anti-genocide protests staged around the world yesterday, Democrats and Republicans admitted that a new watered-down draft of the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act was further evidence of US unwillingness as well as inability to take decisive action …

‘In June New Jersey became the first state to divest fully public funds from foreign companies linked to Sudan, selling $2.16bn (£1.1bn) of stock. Maine, Oregon, Illinois and Connecticut have also passed divestment legislation, as have many universities with billions of dollars in endowments …

‘On the other side, the National Foreign Trade Council, a US lobby group representing big industries, is fighting the campaign and has sued Illinois.

‘Bill Reinsch, president of the NFTC, says the principle is simple: "The president of the United States runs foreign policy; the mayor of Berkeley does not."’

Among the reasons cited by analysts for the White House’s failure to act was Sudan’s oil wealth. Surprise, surprise.

Hey, Harry. Nick. Does Bush’s equivocation on this one read like the actions of the liberator you somehow seem to have convinced yourself he represents?

Incidentally, companies affected by the divestment campaign include PetroChina, Sinopec, ABB, Alstom, Siemens, Schlumberger, Tatneft of Russia, Italy's Finmeccanica, Weir Group of the UK, and Shell.

Amicus gets worker-director on Allianz board

Should the left support the legal right for one or more employee representatives to sit on the board of private companies?

As I understand it, the idea of worker-directors was one of the demands of the industrial democracy movement in the sixties and seventies, although this was slightly before my political time.

And in certain circumstances, the answer just has to be ‘yes’, especially if the worker-director is properly elected and is the sort of chap or chappess with the political nous forcibly to raise workforce concerns.

But I’m not sure these provisos are met in the case of Amicus getting one of its activists on the supervisory board of insurer Allianz, as detailed in today’s FT [subscription required]:

‘Allianz, Europe's biggest insurer, is this week set to endorse the appointment of a British employee representative on to its supervisory board.

‘Geoff Hayward, a representative of the British Amicus trade union who is employed by Allianz Cornhill, Allianz's British subsidiary, is expected on Thursday to be allocated a seat on Allianz's supervisory board, which appoints and advises the company's senior executives.

‘Mr Hayward, who was not immediately available for comment, would be the first British labour representative in such a position in a German company, a senior German labour official told the Financial Times yesterday.’

For a start, the ‘supervisory board’ is just that. Supervisory. The main board is the body that actually runs the show. And second, I don’t like the word ‘allocated’. I’ve not heard of Geoff Haywood before, but the very fact that he was chosen by management would seem to imply that he is perhaps not of trade union firebrand disposition.

And German worker-directors sometimes end up doing an Animal Farm. Indeed, the entire worker-director system was last year rocked by revelations that some of their number at Volkswagen were in such management perks as freebie dirty weekends in five star hotels, hookers and Viagra included.

Sounds like a dream job for Tommy Sheridan.

Official: Dave's Part rocks

Last week the Channel Four website carried an article on the twenty ‘most influential political bloggers in Britain’. Dave’s Part made the cut, so I devoted a short post to bragging about it. Three people commented.

Then C4 took the post down, leaving me looking a right old wally. I felt I had no choice but to delete my boast. Now it has put the piece back up. Jeez, make your mind up, guys. Am I great or am I great?

Further acclaim comes from top Tory blogger Iain Dale, who is distributing a pamphlet on the 100 best British political blogs at this year’s party conference. Yours truly comes in at 37 overall, and number eight in the list of Labour blogs. Hey, I ripped up my Labour Party card in 1995. But anyway, you can download Dale’s pdf here.

Not bad going for six months’ work. Readership figures are picking up, boosted by the brilliant redesign courtesy of Will. And a few of the more leftist national newspaper journos and Westminster researchers are starting to email goss in to

But wouldn’t it be good to have a far left website that has the same sort of clout as Guido and Dale do on the right? For that, I need more inside track stuff. My hero Paul Foot always used to include an appeal to readers for information in his classic Daily Mirror columns. I’d love to continue that tradition.

So … is your company doing something it shouldn’t be doing? Know of a politician up to something naughty? Write in, comrade. Write in.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Safety standards at BP

BP likes to brand itself as the greenest oil major of the lot, as witnessed by corporate advertising that implies the company is basically a windfarming outfit with a small-ish sideline pumping crude, and therefore somehow ‘Beyond Petroleum’. Don’t you just love the sunflower logo, pictured left?

But whichever way you want to slice it, there is no disputing that the company has raked in about $70bn in profits since 2000. Chief executive Lord Browne of Madingly trousers the rewards accordingly. He was paid £5.35m last year, which works out at something like £15,000 a day.

Yet two recent incidents underline that a whole chunk of BP’s cash was accrued by cutting back on maintenance for years on end, sometimes with fatal results.

BP was not alone in such practices, it has to be said. During the extended period of low oil prices seen in the eighties and nineties, most oil majors cut corners on safety. Now the environment - and the working class - is picking up the tab for Big Oil’s superprofits.

Earlier this year, BP was forced to shut down Prudhoe Bay in Alaska - the largest oilfield in the US - after a number of oil spills that resulted directly from its failure to carry out anti-corrosion work known as ‘pigging’ on key pipelines. Whistle-blowing employees had been warning of problems in the offing for years.

BP America chairman Bob Malone openly accepts the rap, recently telling a committee of the US House of Representatives:

‘BP's operating failures are unacceptable … They have fallen short of what the American people expect of BP and they have fallen short of what we expect of ourselves.’

Much more serious than what happened in Alaska was the explosion in one of BP’s refineries in Texas last year, which killed 15 people and injured around 500. Especially given that safety standards were not what they seemed, according to this report in yesterday’s Financial Times:

‘BP mistakenly told state regulators in a 2003 application for an emissions permit that it had installed the updated equipment which investigators said would have prevented last year's fatal explosion at its Texas City refinery, the Financial Times has learned …

‘But BP only applied to replace the outdated blowdown stack on the refinery's isom [isomerisation - DO ] unit with a flare after the refinery exploded …’

As a British weblog, it is beholden on Dave’s Part fully to comply with British libel laws. So all I can say here is … gosh, guys, that was an unfortunate slip of the pen, wasn’t it?

But a US blog devoted to compensation for industrial accidents - I kid you not - is more forthcoming on claims that yours truly could not possibly substantiate:

‘BP bought the facility from Amoco in 1998. Prior to that, Amoco apparently had cut back on staffing and deferred routine plant maintenance. By the time BP took over, there were deeply rooted problems in the plant's infrastructure that were, in effect, an invitation to disaster. Workers reported problems with severe corrosion throughout the plant. The place was literally falling apart.’

I hope you enjoyed spending your £5.35m, Lord Browne.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Harriet Harman enters Labour deputy race

Hattie Harman has officially joined the Labour deputy leadership race, we learn from the Daily Mirror today.

Politically speaking, the pitch so far seems pretty much restricted to ‘vote for me, I’m a woman’ Like, duh. But it’s interesting to note that she also makes great play of her backing for Brown for the top job, and openly boasts of being ‘one of the architects of New Labour’.

Meanwhile, most commentators are interpreting yesterday’s überblairite speech from Alan Milburn as a deft piece of positioning that could yet result in a leadership candidancy.

Reading his remarks, I am struck by the fact that the Tory right currently lacks an intellectual standard bearer. Hey guys, you could do a lot worse than poach Alan once the transfer window opens. He is kind of talking your language, after all.

Anyone with recollections of Milburn’s youthful experiences as a womanising International Marxist Group fellow traveller who worked at the Days of Hope bookshop – for some reason widely nicknamed Haze of Dope – are warmly invited to share them with the rest of us in the comments box.

And am I the only one to notice John Cruddas pontificating on what should be the role of the deputy leader of the Labour Party in today’s Guardian? Any particular reason for writing that piece, John?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Ken Livingstone: will he endorse Gordon Brown?

According to the McDonnell camp, an unofficial poll of delegates at this week's TUC conference – conducted by the Electoral Reform Society – has found massive support among delegates for their man.

A press release informs us that the results of the poll were:

John McDonnell 59%
Gordon Brown 10%
Alan Johnson 8%

Good news. Trade unionists account for one-third of the electoral college. But a slightly cynical reader has emailed me with some pointed remarks on John’s bid. McDonnell’s launch meeting in Manchester recently featured Tony Benn and Jeremy Dear on the platform … but not a single current member of parliament.

McDonnell does enjoy the en bloc endorsement of the Socialist Campaign Group, as I understand it. But I have yet to hear of any MPs individually offering their backing.

And John needs 44 people in the Parliamentary Labour Party to sign his nomination papers before he even gets on the ballot. Anybody got any information on this one?

Meanwhile, I am also reminded that Livingstone (pictured above) and McDonnell were on slightly less than comradely terms when they served together on the Greater London Council in the eighties. And yes, that is putting it euphemistically. But from what I hear, a Livingstone endorsement of Gordon Brown may soon be in the offing if a third challenger does not emerge shortly.

Meanwhile, in the comments box at Paul Anderson’s excellent blog people are batting some intriguing alternative scenarios around.

What if – and it’s just thinking out loud at this stage, of course – what if petulant Blairites decided not to stand against Brown, and backed McDonnell instead, on the grounds that they actually want Labour to lose the next election if the Pretty Straight Guy can no longer run the show? Could that be enough to give Britain its first Marxist prime minister?

Not such a far-fetched theory as at first it might appear. For a start, the Babyface Cokehead is probably more Blairite than Brown is. And don’t forget, a whole slew of Labour rightwingers voted for Benn before decamping to the SDP.

Tears of a Brown

‘A tearful Gordon Brown has spoken at length for the first time about the death of his baby daughter four years ago.’

Why now, exactly? There is no way Kay Burley would have asked those questions except by prior arrangement. That's how interviews with political big hitters work.

In other words, the chancellor has sunk so low as to spin even the death of his child in the service of his leadership ambitions. Words fail me.

Midlands Industrial Council: fat cat bungs for the Tories

With all the revelations over New Labour’s secretive funding arrangements in recent months, let’s not forget that the Tories basically invented the rules of this particular ball game.

Today’s Daily Telegraph has the skinny on the Midlands Industrial Council, one of a number of private funding conduits having been using since the now defunct ‘River Companies’ set up after world war two:

‘The MIC was founded in 1946 as a pressure group to fight the Attlee government's nationalisation plans and champion free enterprise. It has been giving money to the Tories for 60 years ...

‘Between April 16, 2003, and March 14, 2006, the Conservative Party received 52 donations from the MIC totalling £968,690.

‘Membership is exclusive, being invitation only. All have connections with the Midlands and none resides overseas. Members meet about five times a year, go to Westminster to lobby and each year discuss … the amount they want to give to the Tories. The fund varies with the political cycle, but is usually in six figures.

‘Only three of its members are known: Sir Anthony Bamford, the head of the JCB tractor empire, the truck firm founder Chris Kelly and Robert Edmiston, the head of the car importer IM Group.

‘A leading Tory benefactor, Mr Edmiston was put forward for a peerage by the Tories. But the nomination was blocked along with a group of Labour nominations by the Lords Appointments Commission.’

Telegraph journo Neil Tweedie – hi, Neil – adds:

‘Even helicopters are available, or money for a building survey. The more than 30 businessmen who make up the council are not short of the odd helicopter, or money.

‘As one well-placed source told The Daily Telegraph: "I once tried to add up their worth and gave up after £4 billion."’

Wealthy businessmen are make political donations for the good of their wealth, not for the good of their health. The reliance of both New Labour and the Tories on fat cat chequebooks cannot be healthy in a democracy.

Whatever happened to mass membership parties, funding by aggregating smallish donations from individuals who believe in the manifestos that are put forward?

New Labour and the NHS: not safe in their hands

New Labour is set to implement the biggest round of hospital cuts and closures since the Tories took the axe to the NHS in the eighties, according to the pressure group London Health Emergency.

The news comes on the day the Liberal Democrats release the names of the 16 most cash-strapped NHS trusts around the country.

According to London Health Emergency:

‘Highly-secretive reviews of services have been set up by Strategic Health Authorities with PR-friendly titles like "Fit For The Future". Management consultants and accountants have been engaged at massive cost to the taxpayer to draw up the hitlists.’

Many trusts have recently reduced jobs and services, and many more are expected to do so over the next six months, in order to meet government-imposed requirements to balance their books by March 2007.

‘The new NHS Chief Executive has confirmed this week that there will be a wave of closures of major services over the next few years giving the green light to the Strategic Health Authorities to let the cuts rip this autumn,’ the pressure group adds.

Geoff Martin, Health Emergency Head of Campaigns, said:

‘Our organisation was set up to fight Nigel Lawson's cuts to health care services back in 1983. We are now staring down the barrel of the biggest wave of cuts since the Tories wielded the axe 23 years ago, and all this under a Labour Government.’

Lib Dem spokesman Steve Webb argued: ‘The last nine years have seen money pumped into the NHS at a record rate, yet we are still seeing almost daily stories of closures and cutbacks in front-line services.

‘The worry for patients and the public has to be how the NHS will cope over the next three years when the money starts to dry up.’

Among the trusts identified by the Lib Dems are the West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs St Albans City, Hemel Hempstead General and Watford General hospitals.

Ashford and St Peter's NHS Trust, in Middlesex, has a £7.5m deficit and has bought in a 'turnaround director. to find £16m in savings over the next two years.

The accident and emergency unit at Ashford Hospital has already been replaced with a walk-in centre for minor injuries.

East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust is sack 500 people and reduce the number of beds at its hospitals.

Its Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Welwyn Garden City has already lost its children's ward and will lose its A&E and maternity services.

Labour Party: deputy leadership latest

The Labour deputy leadership contest field is growing steadily. Alan 'top-up fees' Johnson has has already declared himself in the running for the number two slot, and is being talked up in some quarters as a potential challenger to Brown for the top job.

Harriet Harman says she may stand, and - as reported below - Peter Hain is definitely up for it. But Ed Balls has ruled himself out.

Still no word on what the left is planning, though. Come on, come on. Surely one of the Campaign Group is willing to make a fool of himself/herself for the good of the cause?

Awkward Squad on the TUC general council

Time was when all major newspapers would devote a story each year on the outcome of the ballot for the smaller unions section of the TUC general council, just as a means of taking trade unionism's pulse. These days, none of them bother. In its own small and symbolic way, that fact underlines just how emasculated the British labour movement has become.

So I'm pleased to give readers the following exclusive, even if it is only exclusive in the sense that nobody else can be arsed to run with it. Those elected in 2006 (union name in brackets) and relevant card votes are as follows:

Jonathan Baume (FDA) 397,000; Brian Caton (POA) 603,000; Bob Crow (RMT) 335,000; Jeremy Dear (NUJ) 370,000; Gerry Doherty (TSSA) 517,000; Michael Leahy (Community) 404,000; Judy McKnight (NAPO) 530,000; Ged Nichols (Accord) 407,000; Brian Orrell (NUMAST) 401,000; Tim Poil (NGSU) 358,000; Matt Wrack (FBU) 237,000.

Whatever criticisms activists may have of these guys as individuals, the outcome is indisputably good news for the far left. Dear and Wrack are former members of the Militant Tendency. Crow used to be in the Socialist Labour Party. Caton has recently made anti-capitalist remarks in a Trotskyist newspaper.

Meanwhile, have pity on Janine of Jblog, who was charged with supervising the vote:

'I have spent today held captive by a ballot box. I was appointed as a scrutineer for the General Council election, which entails sitting next to a box all morning, counting votes for about an hour-and-a-half, then being banned from Congress floor and penned in by bodyguards for four hours to prevent you telling anyone the result.'

Four hours under bodyguard? Sounds a bit excessive if you ask me.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

War on Terror: the boardgame

I've always been geeky enough to enjoy a good politically orientated board- or computer game. Back in the late eighties, the dump of a short life housing co-op pad in Leytonstone I shared with Lee Rock - noted PCS leftie, last heard of selling Weekly Worker in Sheffield when not giving Serwotka a hard time - saw many all-day sessions of Supremacy. We even had the K-sat expansion set.

Technology moved on. In the nineties I was addicted to Civilization, sometimes staying up all night to finish off conquering the Eurasian landmass. Civ III has been called 'the greatest computer strategy game of all time', and rightly so.

I also owned an early computer simulation of the Nicaraguan revolution that had obviously been programmed by US liberals, rather than on the conclusions of sound Marxist analysis.

Play it the way I did - calling in military advisers from the Soviet embassy immediately and doing everything possible to export revolution to neighbouring countries - led to games terminating in about 15 minutes, as your government was overthrown by a military coup.

And now - for the current decade - comes War on Terror - the boardgame:

'Previously just a violent hobby for greedy imperialists, now everyone can join in the War on Terror. Three years in the making, War on Terror the boardgame has carefully distilled and reduced modern geo-politics into a revolutionary game for the 21stcentury.

'Players liberate the world while bickering over oil, funding and fighting terrorism, forcing regime changes and discovering those elusive WMDs. All the time alliances waver: old enemies become friends, while previous allies turn bad guys with one casualflick of the Axis of Evil spinner.'

Yes please, Santa.

Royal Mail and public ownership

This blog has several times lamented the fact that calls for the extension of public ownership seem entirely off the radar screen as far as far as the British labour movement is concerned.

But that doesn't mean unions are not ready to fight defensive battles on this issue. In particular, the CWU's policy is to take strike action if any concrete moves emerge to privatise Royal Mail, an idea that the state-owned business's chairman (and New Labour member) Allan Leighton has raised more than once.

I'm with them all the way. But public support for any future campaign will surely be undermined by the extraordinarily poor service Royal Mail is currently providing. They have lost - yes, lost - three of the last four parcels that have been addressed to my flat.

To make matters worse, staff at both the sorting office and the other end of the telephone at the customer services department do a convincing impersonation of not giving a toss.

No, scrub that. I know they don't give a toss. Why should they? Royal Mail salaries suck. They aren't paid enough to give a toss. As anybody who has ever done a low paid and routine job - and that includes me - knows full well, customer dissatisfaction is simply not your problem.

And yes, I know the private sector isn't automatically more efficient than the public sector. I remember the time I paid FedEx £60 to get a package from Amman in Jordan to London overnight, because my balls were seriously on the line if I didn't get it that day. They delivered it a day late.

OK, OK. Two parcels I'll never know what happened to. And I'm sure Amazon will simply send me another copy of the blues guitar tutor book and CD I ordered without any quibble. But even so, the Royal Mail's current performance is not going to help the CWU win friends and influence people.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Peter Hain to stand for deputy leader

Things are getting interesting out there in New Labourland. Peter Hain formally declared this morning that he is after the number two job:

'I can confirm that I do intend to stand for the deputy leadership of the Labour party when that contest happens next year.'

Once upon a time, he would have been regarded as the soft left candidate. These days? It would be interesting to know just what his private opinions are.

The news poses a tactical question for the Campaign Group. They obviously need someone to make up the full ticket alongside McDonnell. Alan Simpson is the name that springs immediately to mind.

Meanwhile, I am hearing rumours of divisions on the Labour left. Some of those close to Ken Livingstone apparently argue that the McDonnell challenge is a mistake, and that it would be better to find a figurehead that can command support in the Labour Party centre ground as well as on the left.

Personally I reckon only a serious hard left candidacy can provide the shot in the arm needed to keep the Labour left's life support system switched on.

Amicus endorses Gordon Brown

Amicus – the union with the largest number of members affiliated to the Labour Party – has become the first major union to declare its position in the leadership contest, and has predictably come out for Gordon Brown.

Unison, GMB and the TGWU are keeping quiet, arguing that they have a better chance of shaping the debate if they do not endorse anybody at this stage.

As Amicus general secretary Derek Simpson is well aware, the Psychologically Flawed one is no special friend of organised labour. His policies include a continued public sector pay freeze and a commitment to see through Blair’s so-called ‘public sector reforms’.

It is also slightly disquieting to hear Simpson say ‘Gordon Brown should take the reins before the turn of the year’. That’s a bit presumptuous, isn’t it Derek? Don’t you think there should be, like, a contest first? Y'now, in the interests of democracy and all that?

Nevertheless, he gets in a nice swipe at the prime minister’s camp: ‘Ultra-Blairites should keep their own counsel and allow sounder minds to work on the development of new policies that will re-connect with ordinary people.’

If you want more on Simpson’s opinion, there is a revealing interview with Barckley Sumner of Tribune here. You need to scroll down a bit to find it:

The same page also details a survey of Amicus workplace reps, which found a hefty 75% of these activists want Blair out now.

John McDonnell on Labour and PFI

Labour Party leadership contender John McDonnell promises that – in the admittedly unlikely event of him becoming prime minister – he will scrap the Private Finance Initiative.

It’s high time a Labour politician came out and said that. PFI doesn’t stack up, even from the standpoint of bourgeois economics. After all, would you take out a mortgage, pay it back over 35 years, and then hand your house back to the building society because you still don’t own a single brick of it? Thought not. But that’s what the NHS is being asked to do when a town needs a new hospital.

Here’s a press release from the McDonnell campaign, issued today:

‘As Labour leader I would scrap the Private Finance Initiative and replace this money-making racket for the speculators with a public sector investment programme based on government borrowing. Our building programme would be run directly through public sector organisations accountable to the taxpayer rather than a shady bunch of City financiers.

‘I challenge both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to justify the PFI rip-off to trade union members. I also challenge them to justify the NHS cuts and closures programme which has seen 20,000 jobs axed since the start of the year.’

PS: The Boy Miliband - despite what I take to be an endorsement from David Aaronovitch - has now confirmed that he won’t be running for either of the two Labour top jobs.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Mahathir Mohamad and religious tolerance

You can be forgiven for not noticing, but starting tomorrow, the Kazakhstan capital of Astana plays host to the second congress of World, Traditional and National Religions.

Those in attendance include representatives of the United Nations, the Council of Europe, and the European Parliament.

It is open to question whether they should be there at all, given reports of the official harassment of both Hare Krishna and Baptist believers.

But here’s the real clincher. Guess who will be guest of honour? Why, if it isn’t Mahathir Mohamad, former prime minister of Malaysia, pictured left.

That’s right, the same Dr Mahathir who in a 2003 delivered perhaps the most brazenly anti-semitic speech from a leading politician anywhere in the world in recent years, to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, which was taking place in the Malaysian city of Putrajaya.

Here are some extracts. Fortunately it just stops short of an outright call for a second holocaust. Only read on if you have a strong political stomach:

‘The Muslims will forever be oppressed and dominated by the Europeans and the Jews …

‘It cannot be that there is no other way. 1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews. There must be a way. And we can only find a way if we stop to think, to assess our weaknesses and our strength, to plan, to strategise and then to counter attack …

‘We are actually very strong. 1.3 billion people cannot be simply wiped out. The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them …

‘They survived 2000 years of pogroms not by hitting back, but by thinking. They invented and successfully promoted socialism, communism, human rights and democracy so that persecuting them would appear to be wrong
[appear to be wrong!] so they may enjoy equal rights with others.

‘With these they have now gained control of the most powerful countries and they, this tiny community, have become a world power. We cannot fight them through brawn alone. We must use our brains also …

‘Of late because of their power and their apparent success they have become arrogant. And arrogant people, like angry people will make mistakes, will forget to think.’

Mahathir’s presence underlines that this shindig is nothing but an farce, designed to whitewash the somewhat iffy human rights record of the Kazakh government. I only hope any rabbis in the audience lead a walkout.

TUC conference: just how many jobs has New Labour privatised?

With the TUC conference opening in Brighton this morning, the Daily Telegraph reverts to its traditional helpful role in industrial relations, with a shock horror warning to its readers that ‘Unions threaten winter of strikes’.

Here it is tempting to quote George Orwell’s aphorism that some things are true, even if the Daily Telegraph says they are true.

Chief political correspondent Toby Helm may technically be in the right. But ‘threatens’ will almost certainly prove the operative word. Strikes last year hit their lowest level since 1891, the year that records were first kept.

With the current delicate situation in the Labour Party, union leaders will want to keep out of the headlines, in the hope of smoothing the path for Mr Psychologically Flawed to take over.

But what caught my eye in the story was the final sentence, a quote from PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka:

‘Mr Serwotka said Labour had privatised more civil service work than the governments of John Major and Margaret Thatcher combined.’

Really? I’d like to see that stat properly sourced, and then fleshed out with some figures. But I happily take Mark at his word on most things.

As a minimum, public sector unions affiliated to the Labour Party should certainly be looking for a commitment to no further sell offs.

If they had any political confidence – and sadly they don’t right now - they would go further and push for vital public services to be taken back into social ownership.

The psychological flaws of Gordon Brown

The Blairites have long hinted that Gordon Brown is not quite the full public sector borrowing requirement. Hence Alastair Campbell's famous reference to the chancellor as 'psychologically flawed'.

But what exactly did that nasty little man mean by that nasty little jibe? Psychologically flawed in what way? Blairite author Robert Harris - writing in today's Sunday Times - spells it out for those who didn't quite take the hint first time round:

'Brown suffers from a kind of political Asperger’s syndrome. Intellectually brilliant, he sometimes seems socially barely functional: a little bit . . . odd.'

Harris goes on to speak of Brown's 'compulsive-obsessive behaviour', his 'awkwardness' and even his 'autism when it comes to personal relations'. Autism when it comes to personal relations? What other kinds are there, exactly, Robert?

This is second Times article in a week to virtually come out and state point blank that the chancellor is an aspie. Only on Friday, Anatole Kaletsky spoke of Brown's 'brooding, almost autistic personality'. Note how he says that like it's a bad thing.

For what it's worth, I met Brown a couple of times, more than ten years ago now. Yes, he was instantly rude to me as soon as we were introduced for the first time. And I was astonished by his ability to quote back at me things I had written in criticism of him, weeks and even months previously, for small circulation publications.

But assuming that Brown has had the diagnosis - and lots of middle aged men with the condition have not, as Asperger's Syndrome was not recognised until the mid-nineties - the chances of him admitting it are as slim as the chances of finding out whether or not Blair gave his last kid the MMR triple jab.

My opposition to Brown is based on his New Labour politics. Whether or not he is on the autistic spectrum has nothing to do with it.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Carnival of Socialism

Carnival of Socialism exists to spotlight socialist blogging, and Dave's Part is hosting edition number eight. For the next four weeks, I'll be posting links to the most interesting radical stuff I find out there on the internet. I'd also be happy to hear your suggestions on what to include. But let's start with some of my own picks.

I was thinking of writing something on the death of Sir Alfred Sherman myself. But Charlie over at Random Pottins beat me to it, and did such a thorough job of research that I realised at once that nothing I could write could possibly top his offering. Read it here. This is the sort of intelligent socialist journalism I really would like to see more of in the blogosphere.

Janine is blogging live from the Trades Union Congress conference in Brighton this week - the British equivalent of the AFL-CIO, for the benefit of foreign readers - and promises updates several times a day. Given the minimal coverage the event gets in the mainstream media these days, she could be an important source of information.

Speaking of conferences, Liam MacUaid - old East London Trot comrade of mine - offers this perspective on Labour's decision to invite the Rev Ian Paisley to address its forthcoming gathering:

'Calling the Pope the Antichrist is only a simple statement of fact but every loyalist killer who ever shot or hacked a Fenian to death was, in part, driven by what Paisley said and did.'

Oh, and still on the conference theme, he adds this on the internal situation in Respect, which he should have known better than to join in the first place:

'Delegates to Respect conference are elected by the branches on a ratio of one delegate for every ten members. Last year Tower Hamlets Respect was entitled to send forty delegates. This year it is seventeen. I will have conference weekend free, having failed to get elected. Fortunately political pluralism and a diversity of socialist opinions will be guaranteed by the nine SWP members who were elected.'

Looks like membership is falling fast, even in the number one bastion of 'the Unity Coalition'.

Now for a couple of nominations from John Angliss. First, there's twp - an American living in Britain who blogs at Unknown Conscience - makes some sharp comparisons between racism in the US and racism in the UK:

'The next time the government want to look at why even English-speaking Americans like myself feel unaccepted in this country, perhaps they should take a look at their imperial past and recognise that the time for merely "allowing the savages" to act and live with the cultures they grew up in - instead of respecting them a human beings and equal - died with the British empire. Welcome to the 21st century.'

Second, there's Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling. I don't know whether or not Chris would describe himself as a socialist or a liberal, but I've always enjoyed his blog. Us fortysomething ex-grammar school boys from the Midlands turned London trade press hacks have got to stick together, y'know. He's rather a bright chap, too, as his observations on Marxist economics make clear:

'Why is it that so many people think Marx was an idiot for subscribing to the labour theory of value, whilst Smith was a genius even though he subscribed to an even naiver version of that theory?

'But then I know the answer, don't I? Smith's in the right tribe, and Marx is in the wrong one. The fact that both men had great insights, and flaws, is irrelevant. Because what they actually wrote isn't the point, is it?'

Dunno why exactly, but there are a number of interesting socialist blogs emerging from the US right now, which can't simply be pidgeon-holed into the dominant categories on the European left. Renegade Eye has long been essentially reading, and I also like New Appeal to Reason. Joining them since last May is the Red Mantis, an eclectic mix of everything from Christianity to Che Guevara, who professes himself optimistic for the future of the American left:

'My guess is that in the next few years as class distinction continues to grow, democratic socialism may gain some momentum with Americans who are tired of living in poverty and without adequate food/health care. The answer to these woes is never revolution, but rather a democratic reform, something for which we are long overdue.'

Good to see that not all American Christians are rock-ribbed Republicans. Another Carnival installment next weekend.

PS:Check out also the Red Baron, who offers his take on the war the media handles terrorism issues here.

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