In today’s Guardian, commenting on the plans for Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, Seumas Milne surveys the division and protest provoked by the Government’s insistence on an almost-State funeral with pomp and military honours.

It’s a state funeral in all but name, laid on for none of the last seven prime ministers. Nothing of the kind has been seen since the death of Winston Churchill, who really did unite the country for a time against the mortal threat from Nazi Germany. Thatcher did the opposite, of course, though every effort will be made today to milk her short but bloody colonial conflict in the south Atlantic for all its jingoistic worth.

For many people the Government’s determination to use Thatcher’s death as an opportunity to glorify her record in government and to celebrate her political ‘legacy’ is looking more like crude propaganda than reflective mourning for a deceased politician.

As Milne says,

From the moment the former prime minister died there has been a determined drive by the Tories and their media allies to rewrite history and rehabilitate a deeply damaged brand. For a few days of fawning wall-to-wall coverage it seemed like that might be working, as happened in the US after Ronald Reagan’s death in 2004.

But a week on, it’s clear the revisionists have overplayed their hand. Anger and revulsion keep bursting into the open. Simply raising her record reminds people of the price paid for unrelenting deregulation, privatisation and tax handouts to the rich; why she was so unpopular across Britain when she was in power; and the striking similarity with what’s being done by today’s Tory-led coalition.

Is this a case of a political class so in thrall to the hegemony of neo-liberalism and the Daily Mail version of history (“The Woman That Saved Britain”), that they really couldn’t foresee the division and anger that would result?  Or is it hubris arising from a belief that the class war is effectively over and their opponents permanently vanquished?  Either way, given the evidence of opinion polls, and other signs of public dissent from the official ‘script’ (far wider than the ‘usual suspects’ holding celebration parties), there must be more than a few conservatives starting to question the wisdom of what they launched.

Despite all the efforts of the coalition, the loyal toadying of the BBC, and the timidity of the Labour Party, it’s possible this event might well come to be seen as a tipping point; when public support or muted acquiescence to the Government’s austerity agenda turns to active opposition.

Back in the 1930s, Clement Attlee noted that “in Britain there is the strongest Capitalist class in the world, and on the whole it is also the cleverest. It is unlikely to adopt the crude and brutal methods which have been used in other countries. It is generally too clever to show its hand very obviously or to outrage human feeling. It uses the language of reform and peace and democracy, and gains its ends, not by playing upon the worst human instincts, but by persuading the ordinary decent person that it is going to realise all his highest ideals by other ways than those of the reformers and Socialists.” (C.R. Attlee, The Labour Party In Perspective, 1937)

So, not quite so clever these days then, despite (because of?) their public school educations.

 

This is a recording of a talk given recently by Rob Hopkins, author of the Transition Handbook, in Germany.  He gives a brief background to the the aims of Transition initiatives and describes some of the examples of Transition projects in the UK and world wide.  According to Rob, community development is key to their success in building resilience to the challenges faced by peak oil and climate change.

2013-02-28-green-lecture-rob-hopkins

The problem with Ralph Miliband, according to son Ed, is that he didn’t properly appreciate Margaret Thatcher: “My dad was sceptical of all the Thatcher aspirational stuff,”  Indeed, and so are all those of us who were unconvinced by it at the time, and were never converted to the Neo-liberal project subsequently.

Ralph Miliband was of course a Marxist academic and a prominent and distinguished member of the British New Left.  Like many on the left he was sceptical of the British Labour Party’s ability or willingness to achieve fundamental change to capitalist society.  The Labour Party, he believed, was trapped both tactically, by its reliance on parliamentary reformism, and ideologically, by the dominance of labourist and revisionist perspectives on capitalism versus socialism.  His book ‘Parliamentary Socialism’, published in 1961, records the Labour Party’s political development from its creation at the beginning of the 20th century to the internal policy battles over nationalisation and nuclear strategy following its defeat in the 1959 General Election.

When ‘Parliamentary Socialism’ was reprinted in 1972, Miliband added a postscript which reassessed the Party under the leadership of Harold Wilson.  For those who insist that the move to ‘New Labour’ orchestrated by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown represents a fundamental break with what the Party believed or how it behaved previously, this makes interesting reading.

For example:

…Harold Wilson said much, in the eighteen months after he became leader of the Labour Party, which appeared to provide an answer to Labour’s search for the kind of positive ‘message’ which it had failed to find ever since the collapse of the Attlee Government in 1959.

His most insistent and persuasive theme was the need for change, renewal, modernization and reform in every area of British life, most of all in economic life.  Much of what he said sounded radical enough…. It needs to be understood, however, that what Wilson was attacking was not British capitalism as a system, but some facets of it, the ‘old boy network’, ‘candy-floss commercialism’, ‘parasitic speculators’, the ‘grouse-moor mentality’, and that what, in effect, he counterposed to this was not the vision of a socialist society, but of a renovated capitalism, freed from its aristocratic and gentlemanly accretions, dynamic, professional, entrepreneurial, numerate and efficient.

…Wilson’s apparent conviction that it was possible to make a clear separation between ‘patriotic’ and ‘unpatriotic’ enterprise altogether ignored the degree to which those forms of it to which he objected and those forms of it which he approved were in fact intertwined.  Secondly, that even if some such separation was possible, the kind of capitalism which appeared to meet with his approval was as socially irresponsible and greedily exploitative as any other kind.

Ralph Miliband, though, does not accuse Wilson of simply engaging in a public relations exercise.  Wilson’s urge to reform was genuine but:

… his reforming zeal was deliberately set, for all its verbal edge, within the context of an economic system whose basic features were accepted by him and his colleagues as given; and that all their proposals for change had therefore to be adapted to the nature and requirements of that system.  But ‘adapted ‘ is too weak – ‘subordinated’ would be more accurate…. the ‘modernization’ for which he asked could only mean the more efficient operation of the capitalist system; and this would include that ever-greater concentration of private economic power, which he denounced, but which the Labour Government was in fact to encourage.

So when Ed Miliband announces that he has no problem with some people becoming very rich, as long as they made their money “the hard way”; or that his and his party’s mission is to “save capitalism from itself”, he is firmly in the tradition of previous Labour leaders.  I am sure that Ed, like Wilson, genuinely wants to fashion a more ‘humane’ capitalism.  But also, like Wilson, he believes he is constrained by what the nature and requirements of the system will allow.  And here lies the rub.  Wilson, in the sixties, was operating within the social democratic consensus that emerged in the non-communist European states and the USA after the Second World War.  This was the unwritten concordat between labour and capital that sanctioned the role of governments in macroeconomic policy, allowed trade unions some limited access to political and economic decision making, and accepted (however grudgingly) greater redistribution of wealth both directly in better wages and pensions, and indirectly in greater public spending on health, welfare and education for working people.  Now some might say that, compared to Wilson, Ed Miliband is a political minnow.  But the essential fact here is that he is swimming in a very different pond.

The post-war decades saw increasing strains within the social democratic consensus as economic growth stagnated and capital accumulation was felt (at least by those doing the accumulating) to be blocked by state regulation and the power of organised labour.  The crises of the seventies were resolved by the overturning of that consensus in the interests of capital.  In the US, the UK and elsewhere the right took political power with a very different agenda, using the shock doctrine of exploiting economic and political crisis to implement radical change.  This assault involved the systematic dis-empowerment of organised labour and democratic institutions, the deregulation and removal of barriers (national and global) for business, and the large-scale privatisation of state assets and services.  It established  Neo-liberalism as the new hegemony and consigned social democracy to the same realm of unreality to which ‘socialism’ had already been dispatched.

The Labour Party, because of its revisionist ideology and parliamentarialism, was completely powerless to resist this onslaught.  In the face of the destruction of social democracy as a viable political position the Party had a clear choice: either oppose the new order by adopting a more radical, anti-capitalist position, or accept that ‘There Is No Alternative’ and work within the constraints imposed by Neo-liberalism.  Labour of course chose the second, some grudgingly and some enthusiastically.  Hence the nature of Blair/Brown’s ‘modernisation’, the ostentatious removal of the Party’s Clause IV, the alliance building with the City of London and the Murdoch press.  The Party leaders are very aware that they are swimming in different waters now and have aligned themselves with the sharks in fear of being eaten.

When Ed Miliband won the Labour leadership over his brother David, Private Eye magazine produced a front page with an image of TweedleDum and TweedleDee and the caption “Dum wins, Dee furious”.  Many party members felt this was an unfair slur on Ed -  the same people, probably, who believed there would be some significant difference when Gordon Brown replaced Blair as Prime Minister.  The fact is that there is almost no difference politically between Blair, Brown and the two Milibands.  They have all signed up to the Neo-liberal ‘reality’ and cannot envisage doing anything to challenge its precepts.  For this reason Labour would not repeal the Tories’ anti-trade union laws and will not even support union actions to defend pay and conditions (apart from pointless and powerless A-B marches, preferably on days when there is minimal disruption for business), and Labour will continue to champion markets and ‘entrepreneurs’ over collective and social provision.  This is despite the fact that, like Wilson, Labour leaders know very well the effect is to increase inequality, boost the transfer of wealth from poor to rich, and produce a further decline in social solidarity.  All things they denounce but will, given power, encourage.

I suspect the main difference between Ed Miliband and his brother David is that Ed has a residual nostalgia for social democracy, whereas David is unencumbered by that baggage.

Postscript:  Interestingly, Ed Miliband’s views on capitalism, as expressed in The Telegraph interview with Charles Moore, are a little more nuanced and thoughtful than you would guess from The Guardian’s report quoted above (see Sunny Hundal’s post on Liberal Conspiracy) – and this might possibly be connected to The Guardian’s apparent lack of support for Ed and Labour in comparison to its continued defence of Nick Clegg.  However Ed’s views still clearly fall in to the pattern outlined by his father – radical(ish) rhetoric obscuring an inability to challenge the causes of the problems being denounced.

UK Uncut report:

On 4th December last year, members of Brighton Uncut glued themselves to the inside of a window at Topshop in one of the most audacious and widely read about actions to date. They were using the example of Topshop boss Philip Green’s £285m tax dodge to highlight the now well-publicised link between tax avoidance and public spending cuts.

Friday saw the culmination of their two-week trial, which featured Caroline Lucas MP, tax expert Richard Murphy and Dr Ron Singer called as expert witnesses by the defence. Caroline Lucas offered her full support to the Brighton 9, who she says “put the ethics back into politics”.

In a front page story, the local paper branded the £100,000 trial a “waste of money” and noted that defendants were actually cleared of most charges. Nevertheless, five were found guilty of accidentally damaging two mannequins which toppled over when they entered the window display and handed £200 fines each.

If I was keeping score this would be:

Caroline Lucas 1

Sheila Gilmore 0

For anyone concerned (not Sheila obviously) UK Uncut are accepting donations towards the fines.  Go to their web site for directions.

Following the recent arrest and charging of UK Uncut activists involved in a protest at Fortnum & Mason during the anti-cuts demonstration in London on 26 March, I felt moved to email my MP with the request that she sign John McDonnell’s Early Day Motion 1146.  This was raised last December and says:

That this House congratulates UK Uncut for the role it has played in drawing attention by peaceful demonstrations to tax evasion and avoidance and to the need for firm action to secure tax justice.

Her response was that while of course she supported UK Uncut’s work in “highlighting tax avoidance by large companies”, she would not be adding her name to the EDM because of her

“concerns about UK Uncut’s response to the violence against the police and vandalism that occurred in parallel with the TUC March for the Alternative on Saturday 26 March. Specifically I note that at no point in the organisation’s response to the march (or in any other public statements) do they openly condemn these acts, which occurred in and around Soho and outside Fortnum and Mason” and that therefore “I am unwilling to publicly support the group until it clearly distances itself from these actions.”

Sheila Gilmore is a Labour loyalist and of course is simply repeating the party line as laid down by Yvette Cooper.  Disappointing, but no great surprise.  The demand that UK Uncut demonstrators have to “condemn” other demonstrators, whose actions they were not part of and have no control over before they can have the Party’s support, is obviously perverse.  It is a sure sign that Labour is still far more worried about appearing ‘respectable’ than celebrating witty, creative and effective non-violent direct actions.

The Labour Party is obviously almost as wary of UK Uncut as the Government.  Direct action?  A non-hierarchical structure outside the control and direction of Party and TUC leaderships?  No matter that they appear to pose a bigger threat to the neo-liberal agenda of public sector cuts and ‘austerity’ than any number of A-B marches or opposition speeches in Parliament, the Labour Party’s reflex response is to collude with the establishment in attempting to marginalise and criminalise effective protest.  Even now that police have been forced to admit that the UK Uncut arrests were motivated by “intelligence gathering”, I do not expect any significant change from the Labour leadership or the PLP invertebrate vote.

The current issue of Private Eye magazine reports that Tony Blair is scheduled to carry out a speaking tour of Australia in July this year.  The six-date tour is being sponsored by Australian cardboard box manufacturer Visy Industries  This company is not short of a bob or two (it recently coughed up A$31.7m, or around £19m, to settle accusations of price-fixing) but appears to be financing the tour by charging tickets from A$1,000 (A$15,000 though gets you a table for ten plus cocktails and photo with Tony).   The report does not say how much Blair is being paid to deliver his words of wisdom although he is rumoured to be among the world’s highest paid speakers and, since leaving parliament, is said to have trousered millions of pounds each year from speaking engagements.

Of course, anyone tempted to splash out this kind of money to get up close and personal with TB could also consider a simple way to recoup some of the cost.  As far as I know there is still a sizeable reward being offered to anyone who successfully carries out a citizen’s arrest on this war criminal.

In yesterday’s Guardian Jonathan Rutherford and Aditya Chakrabortty argued that the Labour Party needs to abandon the economic policies pursued by both Blair and Brown (Britain’s economy is broken. This is how to start fixing it).  They point out that in relying on growth from lightly regulated financial markets, Labour was aiming for “Thatcherism with a Presbyterian brow.”  Their New Political Economy Network has produced a report putting forward proposals instead for a more Keynesian approach to economic policy, greater state regulation and a fairer share out of economic growth.  This is very much the new consensus emerging around the Soundings Journal, and Compass and its choice for leader of the labour Party Ed Miliband.  This is of course simply a plea for the return to the post-war social democratic consensus that was ruthlessly blown away in the 1970s by the emerging neo-liberal forces around the world, and in Britain by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party.

In many ways this should be a very modest goal since it only asks for moderate restraints on capitalist accumulation in the interests of ‘fairness’ and social cohesion (or, in Ed Miliband’s words, a slightly less brutal capitalism than experienced in the US).  What it lacks though is any sense of history or political analysis.  The underlying causes for the breakdown of social democratic systems (the restraint of social spending and trade union power on private profits, globalisation and the shift to monopoly finance capital) have not gone away.  Rather the adoption of neo-liberalism in developed capitalist states and its promulgation in the developing world and post-soviet economies, (the ‘Washington Consensus’ in which the first duty of the state is to ensure the interests of business rather than its citizens), has effected a colossal boost to the wealth and power of the capitalist class at the expense of everyone else.

As Willie Thompson notes (‘Social Democracy in Perspective’ in Left Out – Policies for a left opposition from hegemonics.org.uk):

Social democracy, it can be safely concluded, is a busted flush, incapable of developing any vision that could inspire large masses of followers. When voters vote for social democrat parties nowadays they do so only as the least worst option and with very few expectations. The possibility remains that an especially talented leader may evoke enthusiasm, such as Obama did in the USA, but once elected their limitations, or rather the limitations of the political structures, become plain, as has been the case with Obama.

The Labour left, still in denial both about the scale of the defeats of the last thirty years and the lack of popular support for its programme, appear determined to re-fight the battles of the seventies.  This is bound to result in even more disorientation and retreat.

If the Labour left is stuck in a ‘back to the future’ mentality, the right has no such illusions (see Peter Kellner’s Demos tract The Crisis of Social Democracy).  It responded to the party’s 1983 election defeat and the left’s disarray by accommodating the new conservative hegemony.  Accepting Thatcher’s command that “there is no alternative,” Kinnock began the process of discarding all policies seen to make the party ‘unelectable’.  Then Blair and Brown, pushing at an open door, converted it to New Labour – Thatcherism with a human face.  Despite Labour’s general election defeat, the dominance of the New Labour project (a centralised, authoritarian state dedicated to facilitating economic growth by deregulating financial markets, privatisation and ensuring a ‘flexible’ labour market) looks set to continue, and its representative, David Miliband, is favourite to take over as leader.  He appears not only to have considerable financial support for his campaign (from where I wonder?) but also the support of much of the party and the media ‘commentariat’ (see Will Hutton for example).

The main thing that differentiates New Labour from the Conservatives is that while the Tories see the recent crisis of capitalism and the resulting burden for public spending as an opportunity to extend the class power of the capitalist elite, Labour only admits to having to enforce unfortunate though necessary measures.  But what both New Labour and social democrats share of course is the unquestioning faith that, with the correct policies (neo-liberal or neo-keynesian), a Labour government could manage a stable and sustainable capitalism.  A utopian capitalist faith.

Now that Gordon Brown has announced that he will step down as leader of the Labour Party, he will no doubt be looking forward to having more time for contemplation and reflection.  I imagine he might even have time for a little light reading.  Perhaps I could suggest the following:

The vision of the early socialists was of a society which had abolished for ever the dichotomy – the split personality caused by people’s unequal control over their social development – between man’s personal and collective existence, by substituting communal co-operation for the divisive forces of competition.  Today the logic of present economic development, in inflation and stagnation, and at the same time the demand for the fullest use of material resources, makes it increasingly impossible to manage the economy both for private profit and the needs of society as a whole.  Yet the long-standing paradox of Scottish politics has been the surging forward of working class industrial and political pressure (and in particular the loyal support given to Labour) and its containment through the accumulative failures of successive Labour Governments.   More than fifty years ago socialism was a qualitative concept, an urgently felt moral imperative, about social control (and not merely state control or more or less equality).  Today for many it means little more than a scheme for compensating the least fortunate in an unequal society.

The author?  It was written in 1975 by a young Scottish socialist called Gordon Brown (in his introduction to the Red Paper on Scotland).

This is not the first example of a political journey from workers’ champion to bankers’ friend (and it surely will not be the last).  I am reminded of former Trotskyist T. Dan Smith, another labour leader who believed he could use capitalism for the benefit of the working class.  That all ended in ignominy too.

The post-election spectacle of political elites negotiating, bluffing, spinning and intriguing to decide who will take up the offices of state has dominated the media since polling day.  The way in which it has progressed has been depressingly predictable: secret discussions by a cabal of the ‘political class’ while everyone waits passively for the outcome.

Media coverage has, as usual, been dominated by the superficial.  Politics as sport or soap.  Few commentators get beyond speculation on the likelihood or desirability of Clegg supporting either the Conservatives or Labour.  Those few who point out that, in reality, the outcome is unlikely to be very different either way are drowned out by the froth.  In today’s Guardian Gary Younge makes the obvious point that, whatever deals are done by the parties, it is the ‘markets’ that have the decisive hand.  The markets want a stable government to deliver austerity cuts to public spending and all the parties are willing to oblige with more or less enthusiasm.  The conservatives are obviously impatient to do to the country what Thatcher did to the miners, but Labour is more than willing to do whatever it takes to return to ‘business as usual’.

The question is not Which side are you on, Clegg, Labour or Conservative?  (I am sure he will be able to ditch any number of his principled positions in order to serve with Cameron in the ‘national interest’).  But rather, which side are they all on?  Perhaps when people see a coalition of the damned and desperate start to dismantle public services, sack workers (or “free them to the private sector” as it will be described) and deepen the recession they will be less inclined to put their trust in our dear leaders.

In his recent little rant in The Guardian, George Monbiot lists more than enough reasons for erstwhile Labour voters to withdraw their support at this election.  It includes the usual complaints from the left/centre-left over the growth in inequality, pro-business policies and authoritarian social policies inflicted or tolerated by Labour since 1997.  This criticism, though damning enough, is not sufficient to convince a lot of committed (if unhappy) Labour supporters – in his blog David Osler has consistently argued the case for the left to stick with Labour, if not uncritically.  This view combines two elements: first that all the likely alternatives would be worse, and secondly that the Labour Party can be renewed in either its old social democratic form or a more radical, left guise while maintaining its working class base.

The first argument, as well as being speculative, tends to exaggerate the differences between the three ‘main’ parties.  In their joint determination to see the recent economic crisis and subsequent recession as simply a Minsky Moment which can be eased back to ‘business as usual’ by more regulation of financial services and (a little) more restraint by bankers, they surely are the three wise monkeys of capitalism.  As I suspected would be the case, this election campaign has revealed very little in the way of significant differences between Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats, whether on the economy, civil liberties or the environment.

The second argument ignores the way in which all votes cast for Labour have explicitly been used as evidence of positive support for the New Labour project.  Also it does not address the limitations of reformist parties which lack clear objectives or mass popular support or both.

The unpalatable truth is, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies revealed, non of the parties is being honest about just how severe the coming public sector cuts are likely to be.  But to challenge the consensus for this among the ‘political class’ of politicians, commentators and experts means challenging the system of capital accumulation itself.  New Labour, as boosters for globalised monopoly finance capital, are surely part of the problem not the solution. The Labour left, though, is still wedded to a feeble ‘state socialism’ based on a centralised state delivering welfare services to a passive, dis-empowered electorate which is funded by redistribution within a growing ‘mixed economy’.

Anyone concerned with substantially changing a system that is based on notions of economic growth that are unsustainable, that creates poverty, and promotes inequality, must look outside the Labour Party even to be able to debate these issues.

Next Page »