If, as many believe, the war against Iraq was illegal, then Tony Blair is guilty of war crimes.

This site offers a reward to people attempting a peaceful citizen’s arrest of the former British prime minister, Tony Blair, for crimes against peace:

http://www.arrestblair.org/

What have we learned from the last round of party conferences before the next General Election? That the main policy debate between Labour, Conservatives and LibDems is about public spending cuts (where they will fall and how heavily rather than the justice of who will bear them or the necessity of having them now). No great surprise there. Or with the fact that the Tories clearly anticipate victory while Labour is still in denial about its forthcoming drubbing. Despite the fact that these events are now almost purely an expensive PR exercise, tightly controlled to promote the parties’ public image, they often (unwittingly?) reveal something useful.
The Labour Party conference provided, if anyone still needed it, confirmation that it is still trapped in the ‘New Labour’ mindset of social authoritarianism coupled with economic neo-liberalism. The party that excelled at being the bankers’ friend now finds itself in a bidding war to cut public services, pensions and jobs. Some will see this as merely a right-wing phase for the party and hope for a shift to the left after the election. Although this might turn out to be true, the idea that the Labour Party will then be either willing or capable of pursuing a socialist or even radical alternative seems to be based on a determined suspension of disbelief. Leaving aside the electoral prospects of a demoralised rump Labour Party, there are more fundamental obstacles. The Labour left has no more strategy for effecting change now than it had in the eighties – a vacuum that encouraged first Kinnock and then Blair and Brown to adopt the opposition’s agenda, and the Blairites are insisting on more ‘modernisation’. So is the party, whether ‘New’ or old, fit for purpose?
Paul Allender, in his book “What’s Wrong With Labour”, argued that Labour’s left and right (and even ‘New Labour’) share the party’s ethos of ‘labourism’ which precludes it from ever being an effective agent of radical change. Allender identified seven characteristics of this inherent labourism:

an absence of ideology;
a confused and confusing policy-making process;
‘pragmatism’ over principles;
aiming to represent ‘national’ rather than sectional interests;
relying on an emotional rather than rational appeal;
a lack of democracy and excessive bureaucracy;
a culture of defeatism.

His book catalogues clear evidence of all these since the party’s inception as the Labour Representation Committee in 1900. In addition both the left and Fabian traditions within the party share an overly centralising, statist approach to reform.
Given its slump in membership and public support, and the appalling record of its time in government, it is surely time to ask: what is the Labour Party for? What are its aims and objectives? The nearest it gets is the often cited claim to be in favour of greater social justice. But this is left so vague that it does not differentiate Labour from most other parties (probably only the BNP is explicitly in favour of less social justice). This exemplifies most of the seven sins of labourism. ‘Social justice’ is a muddled, undefined concept; it appeals mainly to emotion rather than reason; lack of ideology obscures the reasons for injustice and therefore the steps required to deal with it; by aiming to represent all interests the party undermines its own objectives in ending divisions and builds in defeat from the beginning.  (BTW – any party that enthusiastically pursues building more prisons is aiming to contain social injustice, not remove it.)
For a clear and concise discussion of socialists’ objectives, and the opportunities and traps of using state institutions to achieve these, William Morris’s lecture on Communism, though written over 100 years ago, still enlightens and inspires.

There appears to be widespread consensus about the need for Government to make deep cuts in public expenditure in order to reduce government borrowing. Not only have the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties agreed that this is necessary, but also most political and economic commentators and, indeed, public opinion. The only difference of opinion (and therefore the only area for debate) seems to be around how soon to cut and where. This is widely touted to be one of the key issues in the forthcoming general election and may even turn out to be the only thing differentiating the three parties.

Although the conservatives are always in favour of cutting public expenditure in principle and ‘New Labour’ has, from its birth, been a ruthless promoter of privatisation and market forces, the spur for this particular round of me-tooism has been the deluge of public money thrown at the financial system since the debt/credit crisis began to unravel in 2008 plus the extra spending on benefits and drop in tax income due to the resulting recession. Government borrowing is anticipated to reach £175bn as a result and there is widespread agreement that this has to be reduced as quickly as possible (although the reasons why this is so necessary are usually obscured and taken for granted).

The scale of cuts being envisioned by the three main parties will mean not just the axing of high-profile projects such as ID cards or Trident missile submarines (and good riddance to those), but also across-the-board cuts in basic services (education, healthcare, social services) and public sector pay and pensions. Cuts in Government spending will also prolong the recession and maintain high levels of unemployment (currently 2.5 million and rising, the highest level since 1995).

So it is the people who use public services or who lose their job who will bear the cost of rescuing the financial system and bailing out the banks but, oddly, no corresponding contribution from the people and institutions at the centre of the bail out. In fact, as we now know, “bonuses are back” for bankers (even where the banks are, for all intents and purposes, owned by the public!). One social commentator, Maurice Glasman, has described the bail out as “the biggest transfer of wealth from poor to rich since the Norman Conquest” (‘The common good’ in What Next For Labour, Demos).

Neither are there any serious proposals to control or regulate the financial sector to prevent a recurrence of such crises. So how to explain the determination of Government to return to ‘business as usual,’ and the one-sidedness of bearing the cost?  The New Labour project is founded on the idea that extra funding for the public sector can only come from faster growth and bigger profits in the private sector.  Gordon Brown is a long standing admirer of the private finance sector, its risk taking and the income it generates for government.  He would clearly like to be seen as the person who rescued the system and returned to the status quo ante.

The one-sided burden of paying for this rescue, though, is a classic example of ‘lemon socialism.’ This is a term used to describe those occasions when the state intervenes to rescue some failing part of the private sector (‘lemons’). But it also exposes the way in which capitalism is adept at avoiding the risks of the free market while retaining all the rewards. Another way of describing this is “socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor.” Other examples that spring to mind include the Government’s Private Finance Initiatives, the privatisation of the railways, and the “rescue” of MG Rover.

Why then, given the catastrophic failure of finance capitalism, and the widespread public anger with the banks and support for action, is there so little being offered in terms of fundamental change? To find an answer to this you need to acknowledge both the hegemony of neo-liberal capitalist ideology (“there is no alternative”), and how the balance of power has steadily shifted over the last thirty years away from democratic institutions, trade unions and civil society. Global finance capital is now too big and powerful to be easily restrained by governments acting alone to implement social democratic reforms. And, since the profitability from the (‘real’) productive economy has been stagnant for some time, the pressure is still for increased growth of finance capital due to the higher returns from its speculative bubbles. Even with the increasing likelihood of crises, crashes and the wipe out of wealth when bubbles burst, given the application of lemon socialism, this is a low risk strategy for the rich.

The Labour Party left Compass group has just held a conference, No Turning Back, which aimed to bring together left and progressive currents to explore the scope for “a new model of pluralist politics”.  The Guardian account of the conference was also very positive.  Particularly in the degree of common ground between labour’s Compass left and the Green Party in agreeing on a core set of policies.

However, my immediate reaction is to raise a couple of queries over this as a way forward:

1. It seems to me that after 12 years of the New Labour Project, the left (inside and outside the party) is at its weakest. I suspect that most members of the party who would have worked for the kind of policies and approaches outlined here have, like myself, left long ago. Not only in reaction to what the Blair/Brown governments have done, but because the evisceration of party democracy meant that our views did not count.

2. I do not yet see much sign of a strategy emerging rather than another wish list of policies. What is the Labour Party for? Is it simply about attempting to capture the State, as it is, in order to ameliorate the worst aspects of globalised capitalism? (wouldn’t this just be to repeat the mistakes/defeats of the seventies?). If the aim is, rather, to bring about a serious shift in power away from the state and big business and towards civil society, surely this requires a coherent strategy for democracy, civil liberties and greater equality that most people (not just most party members) will actively support? The Labour Party, even before its Blairite makeover, was constituted mainly as an electoral machine to increase labour representation locally and centrally, and takes support for granted.

I am seeing a lot just recently about the Transition Initiatives.  A movement dedicated to encouraging people to take action to help their local communities become more relilient to changes anticipated due to peak oil and climate change.  Even The Guardian has got in on it with an article by Madeleine Bunting: Beyond Westminster’s bankrupted practices, a new idealism is emerging.

Is Transition a radical and creative way to re-engage ordinary people with progressive politics and participatory democracy?  Or is it simply non-political self indulgence by a small number of middle-class hippies?  Very few of the comments on the article posted on The Guardian’s web site attempt to debate the issues raised, which is disappointing but hardly surprising.  So many of the comments on most pieces seem to be coming from a relatively small number of juvenile trolls that the section should be renamed from Comment is Free to Comment is Banal.

I went to a screening this evening (organised by the York in Transition Initiative) of a documentary film about how Cuba coped with the sudden loss of oil, fertilisers and other imports following the collapse of the USSR in the nineties.  It was not about how Cubans became middle-class hippies, but how a society was forced by circumstances to introduce radical changes in order to survive.
We can argue over how much and how quickly we are going to experience volatile change here in Europe thanks to global recession/depression, peak oil and climate change, but it’s stupid to insist we can avoid a crisis.
The illusion of security (whether in work, health, retirement or environment) available in a free-market, class-based economy  is being torn away.  This growing insecurity perhaps partly explains the degree of anger being directed towards MPs and the growing disaffection with Westminster.
This is an opportunity for us to look not just at the formal trappings and institutions of ‘representative democracy’, but also to question what sort of society we want to live in and what actions we ourselves can take to bring it about.  It should not simply be about surviving ecological shocks but more importantly social justice and the distribution of power in society.

Even that ultra-optimist, Polly Toynbee, has now conceded in The Guardian that the Labour Party cannot avoid defeat at the next election.  Bizarrely though, her advice to the party is to replace Gordon Brown with Blairite front-man Alan Johnson as leader so that the defeat does not turn into a rout.  She certainly has a better grasp of the deep disenchantment and anger that has spread far beyond Labour’s core supporters than the party.  In fact the party’s denial of its problems despite the evidence (is Labour now third or worse in opinion polls?), and its inability to offer anything but more of the same, is uncannily similar to John Major’s conservatives before their crushing defeat in 1997.

Even if, as Toynbee is now pleading for, the Labour party did change leader and ditch some of its more right wing policies (in fact it is more likely to push ahead with these until its fingers are prised off the offices of state) it is probably not going to change its fate a great deal.  Public anger at MPs expenses is being fanned by New Labour’s erstwhile friends in the media, many of which are now looking forward to a Cameron-led Tory government.  And who, outside the small circle of career politicians and their hangers-on, will be willing to go out and campaign for a continuation of New Labour?  The party has been systematically reduced to a weakened, hollowed-out shell; the trade unions have been ignored; left and libertarian opinion has been treated with contempt; rising unemployment and economic meltdown is making everyone except the rich feel insecure and threatened.

So what will be the legacy left us by the crash of New Labour and the general disengagement with the main parties?  While there will be some considerable satisfaction for many of us in seeing Labour’s hubris punished it may be short-lived if, as seems more than likely, nemesis involves a boost for the populist right.  The failure of Labour and the weakness of the left will allow the BNP to fill the political space, with the Tories more than willing to catch up (don’t expect to hear much more of Cameron’s caring social conscience).  Unless there is a swift renewal of the left to contest the far-right we can look forward to local and national politics being dominated by the brutal and nasty.

A renewed left would surely be more concerned to act to defend the rights and jobs of working people, to build support for an alternative vision of society to both the boosters of global capitalism and the neo-fascists.  However disillusioned people might have become over the last twenty years, I suspect quetism will be a much harder option in the future.

“Start doing the things you think should be done.
Start being what you think society should become.
Do you believe in free speech?  Then speak freely.
Do you love the truth?  Then tell it.
Do you believe in an open society?  Then act in the open.
Do you believe in a decent and humane society?
Then behave decently and humanely.”

(Adam Michnik)

Although the reporting by The Guardian and others into the tragic death of Ian Tomlinson has helped to expose violent and, possibly, criminal actions by one of the police officers at the recent G20 demonstrations in London, I feel there is a danger that it is turning into a hunt for a ‘rogue’ individual who was out of control.  As many demonstrators and witnesses have confirmed, this was not an isolated incident; there were many other reports of people receiving the indiscriminate use of batons and police dogs.  The officer who allegedly assaulted Tomlinson was ‘unlucky’ in that this action resulted in a fatality and was captured on cameras.  But should he be made to take all the blame?  If officers were in fact ‘hyped up’ prior to the event to respond forcefully, who was responsible?  If this particular officer did mask his face and remove his identifying numbers, as reported in The Guardian, could this have happened without the consent and collusion of supervisors and fellow officers?
The aggressive behaviour of officers and the use of confrontational tactics such as ‘kettling’ is indicative of the way the police approaches public order when faced with dissent.  This is not new and will be familiar to anyone who has been on demonstrations, particularly in central London.  Indeed, for an example of how the more things change, the more they stay the same, people should read William Morris’s account of being attacked by police on a peaceful demonstration to Trafalgar Square (‘Bloody Sunday‘) in 1887, ‘London in a State of Siege‘ (compare these with the Metropolitan Police’s more self-serving account).

It is a great pity that it takes a fatality to open up the debate on the policing of protest.  Those concerned to ensure it is not repeated should act now to make it clear that this is not acceptable, even if only by adding our names to avaaz.org’s petition.

Hugh Bayley, Member of Parliament for York, was recently asked to support an Early Day Motion on missile defence.  This motion, proposed by Peter Kilfoyle and signed by 90 MPs, noted the widespread concern at the US’s plans to increase its missile defence bases on the continent.  It called on the Government “to scrutinise US missile defence deployment plans in the UK and their implications for UK and European security as a whole.”  A rather timid demand given the destabilising threat from Bush’s legacy in foreign policy (A.K.A. “let’s escalate the nuclear threat”).

Hugh, however, found even the prospect of talking about it too much to cope with.  He has told us that missile defence is “something which the Government will be discussing with the new US Administration”, and that he thinks “it would be wise to wait until President Obama makes his view clear.”  And so, as he does not “think it is sensible to speculate about [Obama's] views,” he cannot bring himself to support it.

Hugh appears to have adopted Tony Blair’s view of the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and America.  This can be encapsulated as: When the US President says “jump” the correct response is “how high?”

I might have to classify Hugh as part of the ‘invertebrate’ group of Labour backbenchers (a sizeable grouping).  These are MPs who lack the courage to act on even long-standing principles if they feel it will bring down even the mildest displeasure from Party leaders.  However I would first have to be convinced that my MP had any permanent principles, or even the willingness to think for himself.

There seems to have been a lot of discussion recently over the strange notion that citizens in Britain should be made to swear an oath of allegiance to the Government or the Queen or both, and various other measures of loyalty and citizenship.

For what it’s worth here is my suggestion for an oath. Repeat after me:

“There will never be true freedom until the last monarch is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”

(I used to think this was attributable to Voltaire – and I’m sure the author of Candide would be amused by the absurdities of ‘New Labour’ – however, it appears to be derived from Denis Diderot.)

Perhaps we should also force everyone to learn and recite a national anthem? I am not too keen on the current one since (1) I am a republican and (2) it was written to celebrate crushing rebellious scots by the Butcher of Cumberland.

How about one of these instead?

God Save the Queen (Sex Pistols)

The International (Eugène Pottier)

Between The Wars (Billy Bragg)

I Predict a Riot (Kaiser Chiefs)

Jerusalem (William Blake) – for England

Parcel of Rogues (Robert Burns) – For Scotland

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