Now it begins

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party yesterday was possibly the most important political event during my lifetime – certainly in terms of British politics. For the left, everything has changed; old analyses have proved wanting, old certainties false, old strategies redundant.

When I first joined the Labour Party in 1962 I was told that it was ‘a broad church’; indeed, in my local party I found socialists (for that’s what everyone unblushingly called themselves then) ranging from marxists of various stripes to the former Managing Director of Burma Oil. With the exception of NATO and nuclear weapons, on which the party was, as now, divided, virtually every party member I remember from those days would today have found themselves in agreement with virtually all of JC’s policy positions.

While Tariq Ali’s assertion that Jeremy is the most left wing Labour leader ever may well be true it is also certainly true that over the past thirty years or so the party has drifted, inexorably it seemed, to the right. Under Blair, of course, that drift was consciously accelerated as the Blairites attempted to cut the party’s links to its class roots and transform it into simply an election machine for their particular brand of neo-liberalism with a human face. Under Blair, consistent traditional Labour right-wingers like Roy Hattersley found themselves criticising Labour from the left, democracy and effective political debate were systematically bled from the party and it became more and more like the husk of a once living political entity.

After 1997, while Labour continued to win elections it steadily lost votes at each one. By the time that it lost the 2010 election Labour had lost 5 million votes and most of those were from its working class base. Labour also lost members – its membership more than halved between 1997 and 2010 – in particular after Blair’s decision to join the USA in the invasion of Iraq there was a haemorrhage of appalled members. As Labour moved to the right a growing space opened to its left, and it seemed that it was in this space that the task of the refounding a broad based and popular democratic socialist party would have to be begun.

Two months ago – it feels like half a lifetime, so dramatically have things changed – I wrote that a period like now, when, in comparison to ‘normal times’ a long underlying crisis emerges, provides an opening for socialists to explain our ideas to a more receptive audience but that “in order to seize the time one needs a party, or at least a popular movement, or at least a critical mass of some thousands of activists who can provide the energy, physical resources and imagination needed to mobilise that movement and build (or rebuild) that party. So what grouping on the left could provide such a critical mass? The Green Party could do it but won’t. Left Unity would do it but can’t.The various comic opera bolshevik sects don’t even want to. But perhaps – just perhaps – the inchoate movement coalescing around Jeremy Corbyn might.” 

So yesterday’s vote, showing that Jeremy had a commanding lead in all three of the party constituencies demonstrated two things; first that, those of us who had long ago given up on the possibility of the Labour Party being a vehicle of popular change have been proved wrong and second that the impetus to revivify the party has not come from the left within the party or even the ‘traditional’ labour movement, but from the streets and a new agency – the new young dispossessed, the ‘precariat’ if you will. It is Generation Rent, it is the generation of Occupy and UK Uncut. Due to the unique (and previously disempowering) structure of the British labour movement and the serendipitous accident that led to a modest but inspiring socialist candidate getting onto the Labour leadership ballot, this new force, rather than rejecting the Labour Party has stormed it, brushing aside the barriers erected by the apparatchiks and ignoring the received wisdom of the Great and the Good and the sneers of the commentariat. In the doing so, it has dragged along in its wake most of the those in the ‘old new left’ whose capability for independent and critical thinking have not been totally ossified by sectarianism and given the existing left in the party a huge transfusion of hope and confidence.

I went on the refugee solidarity march yesterday and marvelled at its diversity, its youth and its positivity. This was Generation Jezza. When, in yesterday’s sunshine, the huge crowd in Parliament Square responded with a great wave of cheers and applause at the appearance of an old bloke with a white beard on the stage in front of them (no, not this old bloke with a white beard, that one) I was reminded of those two lines of Wordsworth’s from the Prelude:

Bliss was it in the dawn to be alive                                                                                                But to be young was very heaven

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Kafka is writing again – this time it comes via email

The paranoia of Labour’s apparatchiks, both at HQ and in local Labour Parties, seems to be growing by the day in the face of what looks like an almost certain Corbyn victory. The party has announced  that it has purged, among a long list of others, whose crime seems primarily that they are believed to have voted Green in May, a ‘Jeremy’ of London on the grounds that he had written articles in 2001 and 2002, indicating his support for the Socialist Alliance – an organisation that folded in 2003 for God’s sake! However, the Erich Honecker Prize for Stazi-like behaviour must go to Guardian journalist Tim Dowling’s local Labour Party, which asked his 17 year old son to inform on a couple of his friends who were suspected of being ‘infiltrators’ (they weren’t, as it happens).

Other people have been excluded for ridiculous reasons, like the person who a local councillor wanted to bar for not attending a fund raising barbecue, or for no discernible reason, like Win Francis, who is 90. Win joined the Labour Party in the 1940s and spent the next fifty years until she was in her eighties working for the Labour Party. The local MP, who did not live in the constituency, stayed at her house when not in London and she was the mainstay in her local ward in Sheffield. She left the Labour Party in recent years but never joined any other party and has just been informed she has been barred from voting.

While such negative behaviour isn’t entirely unexpected – the default position of bureaucracies is a negatively defensive one, so suspicion of enthusiastic newcomers, particularly when they appear in uncontrollable numbers, is unsurprising if depressing. However, Labour’s officials seem to be unaware of the damage that they are doing to the party’s reputation. Barrister and Labour Party member Peter Taheri has asked in an excellent article in the Independent ‘Does it not occur to Labour grandees that this exercise is reminiscent of the McCarthyite “Have you ever supported” question? Are they simply ignoring the fact that sane human beings do occasionally change their minds (hence the existence of swing voters)? Or has it escaped their notice altogether that so many people are – at last – once more excited, inspired and enthused by our brand of politics?’ He points out that perception matters in democracy and that if the results give off the stench of a stitch-up the damage to Labour could be irreparable. As he says, ‘so much harm could be avoided if the party grasps a simple principle: you simply cannot have a democratic election where votes are fished out of a ballot box once they have been cast.’

It wouldn’t be (quite) so bad if Labour’s apparatchiks applied the rules they appear to have mainly made up on the fly equally to all applicants for party membership.

In the red corner, I give you Jason Cobb, a Labour-supporting blogger (and former Labour party member) who has been banned from voting in the leadership race, apparently for criticising his local council. He was informed on by a local councillor who objected to some tweets in which Cobb accused some Labour councils of “social cleansing” in London as well as an article he wrote for the Guardian – in 2010 – in which he criticised Lambeth Council.

In the blue corner, I present journalist Dan Hodges. Hodges describes himself as a ‘tribal neo-Blairite’. In May 2012, although he was then a long-standing member of the Labour Party, Hodges announced that he was voting for Boris Johnson in the London Mayoral elections. Following the House of Commons vote on 29 August 2013 against possible military involvement in the Syrian civil war, and objecting to Ed Miliband’s conduct, Hodges wrote an article publicly resigning from the Labour Party. In 2014, Hodges declared his support for the Lib Dems in the European elections. He rejoined the Labour Party in July 2015, apparently without any questions being asked about his very public support for Tories and Lib Dems standing against Labour candidates in the recent past.

Equally, while criticising Lambeth Council in the Guardian in 2010 was enough to get Jason Cobb banned from voting in the current leadership election, Dan Hodges has encountered no problems as a result of his increasingly spittle flecked abuse of Jeremy Corbyn and anyone who supports him in his column in the Daily Telegraph. On 17 August he wrote (of fellow party members who have publicly supported the Corbyn campaign) ‘What amazes me isn’t that the Corbyn cultists are peddling this rubbish. The hard-Left have always spouted this morally superior effluent. What astonishes me is that ordinary Labour Party members are putting up with this crap. Why are people who have dedicated their lives to Labour letting a bunch of three-quid-dog-on-a-rope-rent-a-Trots lecture them on their own party? The genuine heirs of the Suffragettes and the Chartists and the Tolpuddle Martyrs shouldn’t be cowed by people who view a bar of soap as a tool of capitalist oppression.’

And three days later, assuming that Corbyn will win the election, rather than accept the result of what will be the largest exercise in popular democracy ever undertaken by a British political party, our Dan is considering – once more in the Telegraph – how best to undermine the result and purge the party of those with whom he disagrees. ‘How does Labour recover from this? How does Labour erase that image from the eyes and the minds of the electorate? Yes, Jeremy Corbyn could be deposed. But then what? Is he going to be expelled? Are his supporters going to be expelled? And if they’re not, then when the Tories say “they are still there. They are just watching, and waiting” what can Labour say?

Labour will be able to say nothing. Because the Tories will be right. People are right to prepare for the resistance. It’s right that Labour’s moderates ready themselves to take up arms in defence of their party.’

Unlike Dan it appears, I believe in free speech (even if it is as hysterically abusive as Dan’s columns) and the right of party members to be publicly critical of party policies. And, unlike him again I suspect, I don’t think that previous political associations, or even having previously voted for another party (or in Dan’s case, two other parties) should disqualify someone from joining or rejoining the party. So I think that he has every right to join the Labour Party and every right to vote in the current election. But so have virtually all the new would-be members and supporters who have been excluded by Labour’s thought police on suspicion of having voted Green in the last election or having previously been in another socialist organisation. As Peter Taheri says: ‘Registered supporters have declared that they subscribe to the aims and values of the party. Unless there is conclusive evidence to prove otherwise – such as someone serving as an MP or councillor for another party – supporters must be taken at their word. For the party to sift through social media profiles in pursuit of incriminating evidence is sinister. A week is a long time in politics; floating voters drawn to Corbyn’s message of hope must not be punished for past views. We should welcome voters with an embrace, not a presumption of guilt.’

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Setting out on a new voyage

Following the final deadline to sign up as a member or supporter of the Labour Party in order to vote in the leadership election, the Labour Party has announced that 610,753 people are eligible to vote. Labour had roughly 200,000 members by election day in May, meaning that membership, which now stands at 300,000, has risen by 50% in just three months. Over that short period, 120,000 people have paid £3 to become registered supporters and 190,000 have signed up to vote through their trade union. By any measure, that is an extraordinary and spectacular rise in support.

But even the dogs on the street know what has, for the most part, been the stimulus and inspiration for this remarkable upsurge of support; the Jeremy Corbyn election campaign. The hundreds of thousands who will be voting for Corbyn come from a number of directions; young people, who have been involved in single issue campaigns or who have never been politically active before,  but who have been inspired by someone who is transparently decent and straight forward saying that there is an alternative to continuing austerity, growing inequality ongoing subsidies to private landlords and low pay employers, trade unionists supporting a politician who is unequivocally on their side who wants to transform the current insecure low wage economy and create decent secure jobs, and life long socialists like me who were abandoned by the Blair ‘project’ and who have for years longed for the opportunity to be part of a mass popular party of the left which could be the natural home for socialists, feminists and environmentalists.

Almost two years ago, in November 2013, a new party, Left Unity, was established. It was set up because many of us on the left believed that the Labour Party, after twenty years of Blairism, was a hollowed out shell that could not be revived. Its objective was to help to establish a broad based socialist party free from the backward looking obsessions of the old far left sects. Its constitution laid down its aim:

to unite the diverse strands of radical and socialist politics in the UK including workers’ organisations and trade unions; ordinary people, grass root organisations and co-operatives rooted in our neighbourhoods and communities; individuals and communities facing poverty, discrimination and social oppression because of gender, ethnicity, age, disability, sexuality, unemployment or under-employment; environmental and green campaigners; campaigners for freedom and democracy; all those who seek to authentically voice and represent the interests of ordinary working people.

The tsunami of support that the Corbyn campaign is being transformed into a grassroots movement – a movement that, to my astonishment, looks well positioned to transform the Labour Party into the democratic and inclusive socialist party that I believe is so desperately needed and which Left Unity was established to work for. But the spontaneous explosive growth of that movement renders the efforts of Left Unity redundant. In the face of hundreds of thousands of people backing the effective refoundation of the Labour Party, the existence of a separate little organisation of a couple of thousand aiming to do much the same thing becomes a little absurd. It is clear to me that the right place for socialists (of all varieties) is in this newly revived Labour Party.

I have therefore left Left Unity, signed up as an affiliated member of Labour and will be joining up as an individual member in the near future.

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Newspeak – a glossary for our times

Many years ago, the journalist Claude Cockburn suggested that widely used journalists’ cliches should be translated to enable us to understand what they really meant. For example, he pointed out that the phrase ‘the country as a whole’ (as in ‘the deregulation of the banks/the construction of yet another runway at Heathrow/the closure of some more factories, is in the interests of the nation as a whole’) could be better understood when translated as ‘the rich and their hangers-on’. Ever helpful as I am, I thought I would follow in his footsteps in preparing a useful glossary of some current phrases and their real meanings to assist in understanding what politicians and the commentariat are actually saying.

Regeneration – demolishing council estates

Building vibrant communities – social cleansing

Hard choices – cuts

Brave decisions – cuts

Value for money – cuts

Reforms – privatisation and cuts

Deceptively large – small

Luxurious – small with an en-suite

Hard working families – middle class people with children

Problem families – poor people with children

Scroungers – poor people without jobs

Royal Family – scroungers

Something for nothing – benefits that we all pay for

Loony Left – socialist

Unelectable – socialist in the Labour Party

Extremist – a member of Unite

Dinosaur – anyone who can recognise a quote from Nye Bevan

Centre Left – regretfully right wing

Centre – right wing

Centre Right – really right wing

Migrant – human being

Refugee – frightened human being

Asylum seeker – refugee

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Gramsci, snooker and continental drift

 The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

As the Bard of Essex Ian Dury so cogently put it “There ain’t arf been some clever bastards”. Antonio Gramsci was undoubtedly one of the cleverest of those bastards, particularly as evidenced by his concept of hegemony, the ‘manufacture of consent’ that maintains the dominance of ruling class ideas and values in bourgeois society.

Gramsci saw that the capitalist state was made up of two interlinking elements, ‘political society’ – Lenin’s ‘special bodies of armed men’ – and ‘civil society’, which rules through popular acceptance of ruling class ideology.  His concept of civil society was very different to the narrow view common today, which defines it as the ‘third sector’ of charities, voluntary organisations and NGOs. Gramsci’s civil society is the public sphere where trade unions and political parties gain concessions from the bourgeois state, and the sphere in which ideas and beliefs are shaped and bourgeois ‘hegemony’ reproduced in cultural life through the media, universities and religious institutions to create and maintain legitimacy.

But nothing is fixed, everything is in a constant state of flux, even though we may not be aware of it in the moment. In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci pointed out that the leverage that institutions like political parties exert can only be maintained when and where there is some relationship between what they are saying and doing and the lived experience of their traditional supporters – stretched too far and that relationship will eventually break. In as neat a description of ‘Pasokification’ as one could wish for, he wrote:

At a certain point in their historical lives, social classes become detached from their traditional parties. In other words, the traditional parties in that particular organisational form, with the particular men who constitute, represent and lead them, are no longer recognised by their class (or fraction of a class) as its expression.

That is clearly what has happened in Greece, Spain and Scotland.  And it is, perhaps, just, starting to happen in England and Wales too. But while cracks in hegemony may have begun to open, its crisis is not consistent across civil society nor consistent within all social groups.  For example, Labour’s election defeat was not only the result of its annihilation by a party to its left in Scotland, but the erosion of its vote in many depressed northern working class areas was due to both the (deserved) disengagement by older working class voters and to some degree their drift towards UKIP.

At the same time though, the more or less spontaneous manifestations of popular rejection of the Tories’ austerity agenda, largely but not entirely on the part of young members of the precariat,  demonstrated by the Green Party’s surge in membership from fourteen to sixty seven thousand before the election and now quite spectacularly in the emergence of a widespread grassroots campaign for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid, represents the most important crack in the ruling class’s ideological hegemony for a generation or more.

Earthquakes, while sudden, do not just happen spontaneously without cause. Continental drift causes the tectonic plates that makes up the crust of our planet to shift, split apart and slowly collide. The sudden cataclysmic rupturing of the St Andreas Fault, which will rip California apart, could happen tomorrow or in ten thousand years, but it will be as the result of a process that has been underway for millenia.

Political earthquakes are the product of long maturing crises too. The SNP earthquake is the product of years of Labour’s slow internal decay, caused by its arrogant sense of entitlement to its seemingly impregnable Scottish heartlands, grinding against the growth of popular alienation from Westminster rule since the disastrous imposition of the Poll Tax, and the steady growth of the SNP in the vacuum Labour created in its steady move to the right.

Since 2010 the most significant feature of real opposition to the Tory austerity policies, the most reactionary and vindictive for a century, has been, by and large, its absence. Labour had abandoned even the most timid Keynesianism and found itself increasingly, if rhetorically regretfully, complicit in the attacks on the the poor and the disabled (even though it had opened the door for some of them when in office). The trade union bureaucracy, unwilling to break with the Labour leadership clique, has largely responded to the Tories’ attacks with angry press statements and the organisation of a few token demonstrations. But the entire neoliberal project that has dominated the economic agenda since the early 1980s  has, since 2008, faced an ongoing chronic crisis which has emerged and re-emerged in different ways and different places.

Of course, capital is generally able to find a way out of crisis – even as profound as the interlocking complex of crises it now faces – if it is given the freedom of movement to do so. Thus the Tories, emboldened by the apparent lack of opposition to its economically illiterate 2010 austerity programme (and in particular by Labour’s effective capitulation) are preparing to launch a savage attack on the welfare state and the trade unions that will sweep away most of the gains of a century of reformism.  But economic crises also produce a response among those who are faced to pay the price for their resolution, albeit delayed.  When crises come, they develop in new and unexpected ways as their contradictions are condensed and dispersed, rupturing in surprising ways.

While a crisis doesn’t automatically produce a widespread or radical (or progressive) change in consciousness, it does change the terrain of struggle.  A period like now, when, in comparison to ‘normal times’ a long underlying crisis emerges, provides an opening for socialists to explain our ideas to a more receptive audience, but we can’t assume radical changes of consciousness will spontaneously emerge – certainly not in the same way at the same time among all oppressed groups. Rather, socialists need to be actively involved in struggle – organising and open to the possibilities of this particular conjuncture.  As Gramsci put it:

A crisis occurs, sometimes lasting for decades. This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves (reached maturity) and that, despite this, the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making every effort to cure them, within certain limits, and to overcome them. These incessant and persistent efforts … form the terrain of the “conjunctural” and it is upon this terrain that the forces of opposition organise.

Or more poetically “Crisis thus appears as the moment of rupture at which theory can be transformed into a strategic art”

However, in taking advantage of the possibilities opened up by the crisis we need to be aware that the window of opportunity can both open and shut very rapidly and without apparent warning.  As the French socialist Daniel Bensaid said, in “strategy, time is the exact opposite of a uniform, homogeneous and empty dimension. It is made of clashes, sudden changes and moments to be seized.”

But in order to seize the time one needs a party, or at least a popular movement, or at least a critical mass of some thousands of activists who can provide the energy, physical resources and imagination needed to mobilise that movement and build (or rebuild) that party.  So what grouping on the left could provide such a critical mass? The Green Party could do it but won’t. Left Unity would do it but can’t (certainly not on its own). The various comic opera bolshevik sects don’t even want to.  But perhaps – just perhaps – the inchoate movement coalescing around Jeremy Corbyn might. While the Jeremy for Labour campaign might not be a Podemos, and certainly not a Syriza, its remarkable success in mobilising significant numbers of current and former Labour members or supporters, independent socialists and most crucially, battalions of young people, may well be a case of third time lucky after the dead end of the ‘Green Surge’ and the sadly drifting Left Unity project.

While Corbyn’s campaign has built up an astonishing and exciting head of popular steam it would be foolish (and tempting fate) to predict his victory at this stage.  As I write there is a month of campaigning to go, the hysterical red baiting and muck raking of an almost universally hostile mass media continues unabated and there are signs that Andy Burnham is sidling up to nick a few of Jeremy’s clothes. However, the significance of his campaign for socialists can hardly be overstated.

As all devoted Pot Black viewers will know,  when playing snooker there often comes a point where all the easy reds have been potted and all that remain are in a tight group, none of which will pot. In order to make any further progress, one then has to pot a colour and in doing so cannon into the group of reds to disturb them. There is no way of predicting where any of the reds will then go, but it is a chance that has to be taken. If Jeremy wins (or, indeed, if he very narrowly loses) we cannot predict with any certainty what will happen next. But what we can say with certainty is that his victory would be a game changer for the left, with the potential to be the most critical step towards the birth (or rebirth) of a mass pluralist party of the socialist/feminist/green left in our lifetime.

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The Gas Men cometh

While there may be some considerable doubt about whether Goebbels was, as the ditty claims, deficient in the testicular department (he had six children, after all), there is no doubt at all that he was a master of the black arts of PR. His statement that ‘If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it’ has become one of the guiding principles (sic) of hucksters, politicians and ‘official spokespeople’ everywhere. How proud Goebbels would have been of the activities of the press officers of the big six energy companies, and in particular Angela Knight, the former Tory minister who is chief executive of Energy UK, over the past few weeks.

Between the middle of November and the beginning of December, the energy companies all announced price increases way above the rate of inflation. SSE started the ball rolling with an increase of 8.2% in both its gas and electricity prices and the others followed its lead within days –  British Gas announced increases of 8.4% for gas and 10.4% for electricity, NPower came up with rises of 11.1% and 9.3%. EDF and Eon cannily held off for a couple of weeks, rightly expecting the Government to make some concessions to their demands for relaxations to their environmental commitments, and then announced lower increases of 3.9% and 4.3% respectively.

United Kingdom natural gas timeline

According to Citizens Advice, gas and electricity prices are rising at up to eight times the rate of increases in weekly earnings. By January 2014, the big six suppliers will have raised their prices by a total of 37% since October 2010 and gas and electricity prices will have gone up at three times the rate of inflation, which has been 10.2% over the same period. Yet the energy companies claim that it hasn’t been their fault, but partly the result of rises in wholesale prices, and that their combined profits of £3.74bn last year were ‘not particularly big’. Angela Knight insisted that energy company profits equated to just ‘four or five pence in the pound’. However, in 1998, as the market was liberalised, the regulator, Ofgem, believed 1.5% was an adequate margin for energy suppliers. Profits in other sectors like supermarkets are as low as 2%.

Ofgem estimates that the energy companies’ average net profit margin has more that doubled over the past year from £45 a household to £95. As far as the claim that it’s all the fault of huge increases in wholesale prices, Ofgem says that ‘Our own weekly monitoring…estimates that, over the last year, the cost of wholesale gas and electricity to serve a typical dual fuel customer would have risen by around £10 to £610.’

The reality is, of course, that the Big Six energy companies constitute an oligopoly. They provide about 98% of all household energy and gas. They also control 74% of electricity generation. Wholesale prices may have gone up, but for the most part it has amounted to the companies’ distribution arms simply paying more to their extraction and generation arms.

The second claim of our Angela and the Big Six’s army of spin doctors is that they are burdened by crippling ‘green taxes’ – or David Cameron’s ‘green crap’. But  only £112 of the average £1,415 energy bill is represented by green and social levies. Some of these are the subsidies to support investment in renewables, notably wind; some to promote more energy-efficient homes, typically older houses occupied by Britain’s poorest; and some to install smart meters that will help consumers to better control their energy usage as well as automatically buying for them energy from the cheapest supplier. The Government has responded to Angela’s army by announcing that it will ‘roll back’ some of these levies and says that as a consequence, the average household will see about £50 come off their annual bill – which would be nice if was not following the current much larger rises. So for example, British Gas customers have just seen their average annual dual-fuel bills go up by £123, but a £53 cut in January will still mean a £70 rise for the winter.

This reduction is being paid for in two main ways. First, the Energy Company Obligation (ECO), the scheme under which the Big Six are responsible for insulating the homes of elderly and vulnerable people, introduced only in January 2013, has had its target dates delayed by two years. Second, the Warm Homes Discount, which offers rebates to some vulnerable consumers, will come from the Treasury’s coffers, rather than the energy companies. The government says this money will be found by ‘tackling tax avoidance’, so on current form the discount could well be quietly dumped after 2015.

The companies’ response to Milliband’s very modest proposal in September that energy prices should be frozen from June 2015 to the end of 2016 has been entirely predictable. There have been a slew of warnings from energy company spokespeople that essentially all add up to  ‘if you don’t allow us to put up the bills, the lights will go out.’ Because, according to people like  Paul Massara, NPower’s chief executive, the Government hasn’t provided the industry with enough subsidy and had saddled it with ‘green taxes’, the margin between Britain’s peak winter electricity demand and the capacity of its remaining power stations is narrowing. On a recent edition of Panorama he said; ‘The amount of spare generation that is around at the peak day has gone down from about 15 per cent to about five per cent and I think next winter [it] will be even smaller. So will we get through this winter? Yes. Will we get through next winter? I don’t know’.

English: 's wind turbines in the Sound near Co...

At the same time, the energy companies are scaling back some of their offshore wind power plans. Last month plans for a huge wind farm off the north Devon coast were shelved, while this month Scottish Power Renewables announced it would not proceed with the Argyll Array scheme, a £5.4bn, 1800MW project that could have powered a million homes.

It seems to be glaringly obvious to everyone apart from the functionaries of the three main parties of capital that a privatised energy production and distribution industry that exhibits some of the worst elements of both a fragmented and short term market and a monopoly is a ludicrously inappropriate vehicle with which to rebuild and decarbonise our energy infrastructure. A recent UK public opinion poll by YouGov showed 61% in favour of common ownership of energy and only 26% against. This shows the public are way ahead of the policy makers, at least in part because they are fed up with the way so many formerly nationalised industries are ripping us off.

Capitalism is a dynamic system that will always embrace the new and relentlessly follow the logic of prices and profit, an eternally restless agency for change. But it can only ever react to today’s prices, which cannot capture what will happen tomorrow. So, left to itself, capitalism will neglect both the future and the cohesion of the society in which it trades. The energy industry is a natural monopoly; the only rational and long term option for its operation for the sustainable common good is under democratically controlled public ownership.

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The Captain finds a new berth


A few days ago I took part in the Founding Conference of a new party, Left Unity.

The make-up of the conference was broadly what I was expecting; mainly men, largely over forty, mostly veterans of at least one of the sects and/or the various attempts at left regroupment over the past twenty years. However, there were more women than I had expected – a quarter or a third of participants perhaps – and they were in large measure confident and assertive women too. And while there were relatively few disabled people there were considerably more than would be expected at a ‘traditional’ meeting of the ‘traditional’ far left. Sadly but unsurprisingly though, there was an almost total lack of involvement by ethnic minorities.

Three things from the conference stand out for me. First was the openness of most participants (apart from the members of the two or three tiny 1917 re-enactment societies present, of course). It really was difficult to tell which way many of the votes would go, as for the most part the bulk of the participants really did seem to listen to the arguments being presented.

Second was the lack of rancour. For example, an unfortunate choice of words on the part of a speaker opposing the guarantee of at least 50% representation of women on all party bodies was not only met by a barrage of good natured jeers by women all over the hall but also a good deal of laughter at the sight of a foot so firmly placed in a mouth. Despite a number of political differences being aired, despite the (inevitably) unsatisfactorily brief opportunities to debate those differences and despite the problems in ensuring that those debates were properly balanced, everyone behaved well and no-one walked out in a huff.

Third was the optimism that even an afternoon being taken through a labyrinthine constitutional document by me and my compatriot from the IDCC, Richard Murgatroyd, couldn’t entirely stifle. People (well, most people) stayed to the end and left the hall visibly still feeling positive about our new venture.

I was expecting the day to be stressful and at times it was. I feared that it would be chaotic and at times it teetered on the edge of being so. But like most of the other participants I spoke to, I left the conference feeling that we had made at least as good a start with our new party as we could have expected – perhaps even as we could have hoped.

1470054_469482819839611_1965432076_nHowever, this isn’t the first time such an attempt to launch a party that can unite all those to the left of Labour has been made. I was involved in the most recent of them, the Socialist Alliance, and Respect.  Both ultimately failed because of egregious mistakes on the part of the leadership of the Socialist Party and the SWP in the case of the Socialist Alliance, and of the SWP and George Galloway in the case of Respect – but both had run up against the same two huge barriers that now confront Left Unity and didn’t give any indication that they had a clue how to deal with them.

The first of these is the severity of the damage done to the labour movement and to working class communities, culture and consciousness by the defeats of the 1980s and all that has followed on from them. The second is the continuing (if eroding) hegemony exercised by the Labour Party despite its all but complete abandonment of social democracy for neoliberalism with a human face. Left Unity now faces those barriers and must develop a strategy for surmounting them.

We are not springing up in the wake of a huge popular protest, as Respect did. We have not grown from splits or fusions in a strong radical left  tradition as has been the case in France, Spain, Portugal or Greece, but have emerged out of a fragmented and historically weak far left in Britain that has never in living memory been anything but marginal in the wider labour movement. And, of course, any hopes of electoral success in the short to medium term need to be modest in the extreme, not only because of the unfairness of the current first past the post system, but because any small voice on the left in 2015 (and our voice will still be extremely small by then) will be drowned out in the perfectly understandable clamour to avoid the catastrophe of another five years of the Tories by getting Labour back in.

All in all, these are not the most propitious of times in which to launch a new independent party of the radical left – no matter how broad based it aims to be. However, we don’t have the luxury of being able to wait for a more opportune moment – as Richard Seymour has written, ‘by then the foundations should already be laid, or it is too late.’ His view, which I share, is that ‘the challenge for Left Unity in the short-term is to stabilise itself, prove its ability to operate in adverse circumstances, collaborate effectively with those who continue to be in the Labour Party whether through the People’s Assemblies or more localised campaigns, and define a viable left politics that doesn’t simply speak in the idiom of forgotten eras of radicalism.’ 

But we do have some advantages over the earlier failed attempts, not least that many of us have lived through the experience of the Socialist Alliance and Respect and have the scars to prove it – so we are not going to make the same mistakes again (I hope). This initiative has been launched without the disadvantage of being seen as the personal vehicle for a puffed up and publicity hungry Media Personality. And it is not hindered by being stitched up from the start by the SWP or the Socialist Party; indeed the fact that it is not about being merely a regroupment of any permutation of the existing far left sects is one of its strengths.

Left Unity’s founding conference suggested that the bulk of its members have little or no interest in the hermeneutics of the sects, but do have a real commitment to building a renewed popular socialist movement – informed and enriched by feminism, ecosocialism and the insights and experience of organisations of and for disabled people, black people and gay and lesbian activists. Most important, there seems to be an awareness that we have to be in this for the long haul in our workplaces, trade union branches and local communities. The odds may be long, but I think we may have a chance.

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Why workers must work harder

I’ve written before about my huge admiration for Leon Rosselson, but I’m not apologising for mentioning him again. This is one of his poems from the eighties, entitled ‘Why workers must work harder, produce more and ask for less’. Quite.

Female workers in an H. J. Heinz can factory s...

So that the wheels

So that the wheels may continue

So that the wheels may continue to turn

So that the wheels may turn

Hours into ashes, days into dust, seasons into stone.

So that the turners of the wheels may dies of boredom every day, every day,

Until one day they die of boredom.

So that old age pensioners may feats on cardboard sandwiches of cough medicine.

So that our pensioners may be protected against inflation by investments in Cancer Incorporated.

So that the dust may drift.

So that Bernard Levin may lay his moderately well formed turds on the graveyard pages of the Times.

So that children’s heads may be marooned on high-rise traffic islands.

So that we may all join the equal opportunity queues to be tranquillised, barbiturised, amphetamised, hypnotised, exorcised, Lymbolised, expurgated, tabulated, stamped and sedated.

So that the Archbishop of Canterbury may stir the teacup of the soul with the silver spoon of God.

So that the money-lenders may lend money to pay interest on money borrowed from money-lenders to pay interest on money borrowed from money-lenders to pay money-lenders.

So that the dust may rise.

So that we may be free to choose between Tuberculosis International and the British Bronchitis Corporation.

So that a regiment of Redcoats from Butlins may lick our dreams into shape for knock-out competitions.

So that the ears may be filled with the din that the hands produce for the eyes to consume that the heart may wither away.

So that oil slick executives may dine out at Annabel’s.

So that allotments may be transformed into concrete memorials for the dead.

So that our children may dig dust from the earth for the wealthy to bury in vaults.

So that the balance of terror may be maintained.

So that the dust may fall.

So that the meek may inherit the earth because they haven’t the strength to refuse.

So that the lungs may be lined with the dust that kills

So that the blood may be choked with the dust that kills

So that the mind may be fogged with the dust that kills.

So that the dust may kill.

So that we may count the ashes until tomorrow, when, with energy, or after tomorrow, with determination, or after after tomorrow with a great national effort, or some time in the dust to come, when the stone is ripe, or children, or their children, or their children’s children, or their children’s children’s children may – if the dust – know what it is – if the dust doesn’t – to be – if the dust doesn’t get them – Happy.

Posted in Capitalism, Culture, Environment, Poetry | Leave a comment

Political architecture, (or draw the blueprints before arguing about the furniture fabric)

Artist impression. Rob Thomas and Phil Cullen ...

My daughter is planning to build her own house in the next year or two – an exciting, if somewhat daunting prospect. However, when confronted by an empty piece of open ground and a blank sheet of paper, she’s found it much easier to start the process which will end up with a fully detailed blueprint by saying a) what she doesn’t want it to be like and b) saying, in the broadest terms, what elements it needs to contain. So she knows that she doesn’t want a tacky ‘executive home’, or a fake LA palace, or a Grand Designs type glossy ‘statement’ house. She knows she wants her house to have as little environmental impact as possible and so she doesn’t want to use materials that have high levels of embodied energy. But she does want to have four bedrooms so that she has room for her doddery old parents when they come to stay, she does want some open space for her kids to play in and does want her home to be light, warm and both cheap and easy to maintain.

So even though, at the moment, she doesn’t have any settled picture of what it will look like, she is well on the way to developing the basis on which a well thought out and fit for purpose home for the future can be designed and built – in particular one with a spare room for me, of course.

This is all a rather heavy handed and somewhat Thought for the Day like way of me introducing the idea that those of us who will be launching a new party of the left in a few weeks time are in a similar position to my daughter in the formative stages of designing her house – to start with, it’s much easier to say what the new party shouldn’t be like.

Respect Party

To start with, it shouldn’t be a rerun of the last two doomed attempts to establish a new left party in Britain, the Socialist Alliance and Respect. The first had a federal structure which was stitched up by the two largest sects, the SWP and the Socialist Party, and the second was a stitch-up between the SWP and George Galloway. In both, individual members had little or no say in the direction of the organisation and were seen simply as potential recruits to whichever of the sects was running things at the time. So, the party needs to be rigorously democratic – in reality rather than merely on paper. Keeping members informed of all aspects of the organisations activities, encouraging the widest possible debate on everything and ensuring that all ordinary rank and file party members make up the majority of the members of every elected committee or working group (and that at least 50% of them should be women) are the essential foundations of the democracy that is the lifeblood of a socialist party.

It shouldn’t be, or at least shouldn’t primarily be, a regroupment of the existing far left grouplets. The one thing that the left sects have achieved over the last thirty odd years is to promote the idea that socialists are simultaneously swivel eyed fanatics and dishonest opportunists. Their great crime has not just been that they have given socialism a bad name – which they have, nor that they have, over the years, managed to burn out and disillusion tens of thousands of new recruits and turn them away from the socialist cause, but that they have made radical socialism synonymous with their fetishistic 1917 re-enactment society forms of organisation. They have become embarrassing. While we should actively welcome all socialists into the new party, from the left of the Labour Party to the wilder shores of syndicalism or council communism (including individual members of the various rival comic opera bolshevik parties) – or even those like activists from Occupy or the Green Party who hate injustice but aren’t quite sure what socialism is, we should have nothing to do with the sects as organisations. They belong to the past

English: A stall run by the Socialist Worker's...

Lastly, we shouldn’t get obsessed about programmatic purity. Rather than telling the toiling masses, or students, or women, or any other group of ordinary people what they should be thinking or doing about about the plight of indigenous Amazonion forest dwellers, the intricacies of the civil war in Syria or the threat to the Great Barrier Reef from global warming (not that these issues aren’t important and worthy of serious consideration by socialists) we should be developing our programme for action and our priorities from the daily experience of workers and communities facing the concrete realities of day to day class struggle. To paraphrase Lenin (something I try to keep to a minimum) the party should always be one step ahead of the class – but never more than one step. That means that the party must base itself and its activity in the heart of working class communities and take its lead in terms of priorities for action from the actual concerns of those communities in order to assist them, both materially and ideologically, to develop their potential for self activity in response to the real life issues that they actually have to contend with.

Just being right (always assuming we are) isn’t going to give us any particular credibility with real life working people – indeed because much of what we have to say so conflicts with ‘common sense’, which Gramsci described as ‘the folklore of bourgeois ideology’, that our politics, if delivered as a sermon, are likely to actually undermine whatever credibility we might have. The only way that we can earn the opportunity to be taken seriously and listened to is by being seen to be the most stalwart and reliable defenders of local communities against any and all attacks on any part of them. In the process, we will learn from those communities and the party and its program will be enriched. As my old comrade Harry Wicks, a founder member of the YCL, used to say, the party has to become the university of working people, but a university in which they come to teach as well as to learn.

Posted in Left regroupment, Politics, The Left | Tagged , | 2 Comments

An open letter to the members of Green Left

TUC Day of Action


An event in Manchester last month served to demonstrate to me the limitations of the politics of the Green Party. It was on the TUC demonstration in support of the NHS; a huge, cheerful and largely working class march, the biggest in Manchester in living memory, according to the local police. There were two or three Green Party banners in evidence and a scattering of people carrying Green Party placards, apparently produced specially for the march, with a variety of limp slogans along the lines of ‘Halt Austerity – we have the answer’. However, the only really significant Green Party presence that would have been noticed by most marchers was to be found on the pavement at the point were the march passed closest to the Tory conference venue. There assembled was a group of thirty or forty Greens, some in fancy dress, staging a demonstration against the culling of badgers.

Now, despite what the idiot who has taken upon himself the hand crocheted mantle of the Green Party’s Senator McCarthy may say, we ecosocialists have nothing against badgers, indeed, some of my best friends are badgers. We would all agree that the current badger cull is a bad thing, that it flies in the face of scientific evidence, that it’s likely to actually make matters worse etc, etc. However, on that day, in that place, to stage a ‘save the badger’ demo was an act of naive sectarianism.

It was sectarian in that rather than try to demonstrate the integration of the Green Party within the wider movement, so clearly represented by the huge crowd that day, the Greens in their badger masks actually sought to differentiate themselves from that movement. The demonstration was for them, at least in part, an opportunity to differentiate themselves from the broad movement against cuts to the Health Service and preach to it about badgers, and no doubt about ‘speciesism’.

As the great American socialist Hal Draper put it; ‘What characterises the classic sect was best defined by Marx himself: it counterposes its sect criterion of programmatic points against the real movement of the workers in the class struggle, which may not measure up to its high demands. The touchstone of support (the “point d’honneur,” in Marx’s words) is conformity with the sect’s current shibboleths – whatever they may be, including programmatic points good in themselves.’

It was naive because, clearly, the Greens demonstrating on behalf of the badgers as the largest labour movement march in the living memory of Manchester went by just didn’t understand the significance of what was happening. They were watching a tiny flicker of resistance by the one force capable of really challenging the Tories and their bag carriers, the only force with the potential for implementing the fundamental changes to society that all of us – including the badgers no doubt – believe are vital. They were watching the giant of organised labour starting – perhaps – to stir from its long sleep.

But they didn’t get it – and the Green Party corporately doesn’t get it. For most Greens, the political landscape is timeless and largely unchanging. It is inhabited by two and a half ‘major’ political parties who compete to gain or keep political office through marketing campaigns aimed at what they see as key sections of a passive and largely apathetic electorate. The dominating urge of most Greens is to join in that competition, but with a different set of paper policies to sell. The idea that the political consciousness of ordinary people is not fixed and that they can become active participants in changing society in fundamental ways just doesn’t seem to occur to most Green would-be politicians, nor the idea that real political change will only come about through the self activity of working people organised in a mass movement.

Eighteen months or so ago, in a paper on the future of Green Left, I argued that we had to make the membership of the Green Party realise that its future had to be as ‘merely one part of a much larger, though inchoate, movement of working people who share our fundamental goal of a just and equal society.’ I suggested that Greens could play a crucial role in helping to mobilise and focus that movement and bring to it valuable insights into the ecological aspects of the crisis humanity faces, but that ‘we cannot substitute ourselves for it.’ While many members of Green Left have attempted to play such a role, their influence on the direction of the Green Party as a whole has proved to be minimal.

This Spring, in a paper for the Green Left AGM, I argued that the vacillation and programmatic zig zagging displayed by the Green Party was entirely predictable, given the sharpening political situation, the Party’s narrow social composition and the skewed and shallow nature of its radicalism. Since then, the ground has shifted even more. The Party has, in my view, begun to move to the right, with a series of significant defeats for the left at the recent party conference, the election or co-option of a number of right wingers to the Executive and the appointment of a number of wanna-be careerists as party spokespeople. At the same time, the need for a conscious and systematic attempt to work within working class communities to assist them in the concrete daily struggles that they face, with the aim of building a popular base that can begin to challenge Labour’s slowly crumbling  hegemony, has never been more urgent.

If there was no alternative to fighting what I suspect many members of Green Left know in their heart of hearts is an unwinnable battle to lever the Green party out of its comfortable niche of liberal radicalism, then a case could, I suppose, be made for continuing with it – although there are many useful single issue campaigns, along with trade union activity, that would probably be more useful. However, the world has moved on since the Spring and there is now an alternative, or at least there may be one in the next few weeks.

Ken Loach

Ken Loach (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The remarkable phenomenon of the Left Unity initiative is potentially a game changer that ecosocialists would be ill advised to ignore or dismiss. The response to Ken Loach’s appearance on Question Time on 28 February, in which he said that we need a broad movement of the left to fight against the sell-off of the NHS and privatisation – ‘a UKIP of the Left’ – was extraordinary. His appeal for people ‘to discuss the formation of a new political party of the Left to bring together those who wish to defend the welfare state and present an economic alternative to austerity’ was put up on Andrew Burgin’s Left Unity website a few days later and within hours hundreds of people were signing up to it. As of now, over 10,000 have signed up to Ken’s appeal and around 1,000 of those have already committed to being ‘founder members’ of the new party that will be launched at the end of November. There are 83 local groups are at various stages of formation, with perhaps half of them already active.

The key point about this initiative is that it is explicitly NOT yet another pre-doomed attempt to regroup the existing grouplets of the far left – rearranging the deck-chairs on the Potemkin, as it were. It is, rather, an attempt to build a base among the hundreds of thousands of former Labour Party members or supporters who now feel – rightly – that they have been disenfranchised. In other words, the Left Unity initiative wants to see the development of exactly the sort of broad based party of the left that Green Left has, sort of, argued the Green Party should aspire to become and it is gaining its support from exactly the constituency that we have argued that the Green Party should focus on.

Of course, there is no guarantee that this initiative will get off the ground. There is already some division between those who want the new party to follow the route described above and those who want it to be a rather more sharply drawn party which is, in effect more a regroupment of the existing organised far left (a sort of Socialist Alliance Mark II), which may or may not be resolved at the founding conference.

In my view, it’s a long shot. The odds are probably against this attempt to build a ‘party of a new sort’ succeeding. Nonetheless, it is a genuine attempt to build a mass, democratic, socialists party that is green, feminist and anti-capitalist but which is rooted in the day to day realities of the lives of ordinary people rather than concerned with telling them what they jolly well should be concerned with. That, it seems to me, has to be the highest priority of any socialist in Britain today and it is, I believe, the key priority for most members of Green Left. The decision we have to make is how best we can build such a party.

We shouldn’t continue to deceive ourselves that there is any chance that the Green Party, despite its environmental concerns and programmatic radicalism, can be transformed into such a party – indeed, the vast majority of Greens absolutely don’t want their party even to aim to be an organic part of a wider labour movement. It is a middle class radical/liberal party which, if it is not marginalised by a revival of Labour and the Lib Dems and succeeds in growing its niche audience, will be forced inexorably to the right, as all other green parties in similar circumstances have been. The Left Unity initiative may be a long shot, but unlike the Green Party it does want to build the sort of movement that most of us believe to be vital. To me, a choice between a slim chance and no chance at all is a no brainer. I will be joining the new party when it is established on 30 November and I urge all my friends and comrades in Green Left to do the same.

Posted in Green Party, Left regroupment, The Left | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments