Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Clare College and the Palestine Question

It's fair to say that the choir's planned tour of Israel was not exactly a hot topic of conversation in Clare College during last term. There was a meeting, which I am ashamed to say I missed, organised by members of Cambridge Gaza Solidarity, the group which came about as a result of January's occupation against the Gaza War. From what I've heard, the choir didn't take up invitations to attend. By now the story has achieved national notoriety.

Generally I oppose the sort of blanket 'Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions' (BDS) campaign such as that now in place at University of Sussex Students' Union. There are political problems with these campaigns. A boycott can have the effect of hitting the working class of the target country more than the rulers, or of making it easier for workers to be rallied round their government by a nationalist sentiment.

Positive solidarity could be something like the Greek dockers' refusal to load ammunitions on to a ship bound for Israel. Of course, by the time the invasion of Gaza was already launched, there was a sense of too-little-too-late about this action. So in the meantime, the temptation to call for an all out boycott is strong. It can, if taken as the be-all and end-all, be a substitute for more positive solidarity action.

I don't know much about apartheid South Africa, but I've always found the opinion expressed by many supporters of BDS that the regime was brought down by boycotts to be a bit suspect. I'm sure the mass movement within South African society, with the ANC and others employing a multitude of tactics and strategies, had something to do with it. This is not to deny that boycotts have an economic effect, if enough people rally to the call.

A boycott of Israeli goods would have to be primarily international. Palestinians themselves cannot afford to boycott Israeli industry, because their economy is dependent on it. Acceptance of this by many Palestinians has spurred recent attempts by the Palestinian Authority (PA) to push the boycott more strongly in their own territories. But surely the PA know the economic reality and are just sharpening their rhetoric.

Groups like the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) are all for extending the boycott out from just Israeli goods, to encompass cultural institutions. The latter, which is itself a group made up of intellectuals, argue that the university system is ideologically tied to the state in Israel, and is therefore complicit in Israel's oppression of the Palestinians.

Liberal Bullshit

The liberal argument against any sort of boycott is, essentially, that it is unfair. Why single out Israel when loads of governments behave in similar ways? Why tar all Israeli academics and workers with a Zionist brush? How would you like it if people assumed that you agreed with everything your government did just because you were British, American, Iranian, etc?

This article in The Cambridge Student
is a fairly standard interpretation of this liberal line. Aside from its ridiculously simplistic portrayal of Israel as a model democracy, it misrepresents the arguments of those opposed to the choir tour. Anyone who voices concern about such a political foolhardy action is branded as an illiberal idiot, their views not only 'tragic' but 'shocking.' Perhaps, though, they are merely trying to find effective ways of fighting something much more 'tragic and shocking' – a forty year old land-grab in the West Bank and a vicious form of collective punishment that has Gaza dying on its feet.

Those of us who occupied university rooms in January faced the same arguments. Why not occupy over Sri Lanka, for example? Behind this lies the spurious logic that, because the world contains so many injustices, attempting to do something about one of them is somehow unfair on those suffering from the others. Of course, those of us with a socialist outlook do not just campaign on Palestine. We point out that wars are an inevitable and recurring product of an imperialist system and a rampant and unchecked arms trade.

People 'single out' Israel because of the amount of media attention the conflict gets, the length of time it has been going on for, the one-sidedness of it all, and the historical role in the Middle East of Britain and the United States. Right or wrong, it's as simple as that.

Let's be clear. Singing a few songs on either side of the Security Wall, while ignoring the existence of the Wall itself, is not a commendable act of inter-faith peacemaking. Pretending that this was ever anything more than a free holiday for members of the choir is disingenuous. If it was the case that the choir ever had any intention of coming out publicly against the illegal occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza, or even of publicly acknowledging the realities of the situation, it might be a different matter. They were only ever going there to sing.

The choir and democracy
Where does this devil-may-care attitude to political reality come from? This has largely to do with the nature of Cambridge academia. Cambridge colleges have not yet been completely dragged out of the Middle Ages, and so, for some reason, a Christian choir is universally regarded as an ambassador for Clare College and no-one bats an eyelid. I have been inside the chapel once, for the matriculation service. It was quite nice. Berate my lack of college spirit if you like, but the prestige of the choir was not one of the factors I considered when looking at universities. Choral scholarships? Organ scholarships? What century are we in?

Unfortunately, the college's refusal to open its books at all means that I'll never know just how much of my tuition fee money is being spent jetting the choir around the world. So to my next point. This medieval prestige means that a choir tour is political. A choir tour to Israel is doubly political. A choir tour to Israel on the exact one year anniversary of the invasion of Gaza is crass and insensitive at best.

The prevailing ivory tower mentality in the University means that decisions like this can be taken with scant regard for the consequences. In the end I suppose I oppose the choir tour on the – probably unconvincing – grounds that It's Just Fucking Stupid, and because no-one had an opportunity to discuss or vote on it before it was arranged. The absence of campus democracy strikes again.

I haven't by any means been won over to a BDS position, but talking to Palestinians, I can well understand why they don't want something like this going ahead, and in particular why it appears to legitimise the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. A privileged choir from a privileged university wading into a political shitstorm that it appears to know or care little about has strong imperialist undertones.

Unless decision-making processes are changed, maybe we can look forward to Clare Choir: Live from Tiananmen Square, 2010.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Rage Against the pseudo-political consumerist protest?

So the drive to get Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name a Christmas number one spot seems to be polarising opinion among left-leaning people I know.

Some of the pro-Rage reaction seems to be quite superficial, and reminded me of last year, when many people were expressing their disgust that Alexandra Burke had got to number one with a cover of “Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah.” Too busy flashing their alternative credentials to realise that Buckley’s version itself was… a cover. Although it has become the “definitive” version for a generation brought up with The O.C., as one of those oh-my-God-it’s-so-deep sort of songs.

On the flip side of the coin are conspiracy theorists who point out that RATM’s record label are owned by Sony, who also own the rights to the X-Factor contestants’ music. What if the whole thing is a cynical ploy by Sony, they cry.

It isn’t. As ever, reality is much more depressing. A genuine revolt against the ridiculous private monopoly that Simon Cowell has over the Christmas number one turns out to be making money for the same corporation. It seems like another example of the capacity of capitalism to absorb dissent. Herbert Marcuse must be chuckling in his grave.

We are in the middle of the biggest recession since the 1930s, and our government is fighting a war that in can’t win for reasons no-one can understand. This very week, we are staring at the spectacle of the murderous inactivity of world leaders at the Copenhagen summit. Their refusal to do so much as the geo-political equivalent of switching to energy-saving lightbulbs has rightly infuriated the entire world.

And despite all this, the grandest counter-cultural gesture that anyone can come up with is… “Let’s go out and buy a seventeen year-old song.”

In Cambridge, Killing in the Name is the only Rage song you ever hear. In fact, scarcely a club night gets by without it. The spectacle of liquored-up private school kids waving their floppy hair, apparently without a hint of irony, to a song which forcefully denounces church, state and privilege, never ceases to amaze me.

As for me, I already have the song.

But I do fucking hate Simon Cowell…

Friday, 2 October 2009

News from Sri Lanka

Months after the bloody climax of Sri Lanka's civil war, there are still hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians interned in camps. Even the government estimates that there are 275,000 displaced persons so the number is probably higher. The camps, where people are supposedly being held while the population is "screened" for Tamil Tiger (LTTE) sympathisers, lack basic facilities and are conducive to the rapid spread of diseases.

In a worrying development, the chauvinist government of Rajapakse may be planning on a settlement program in the predominantly Tamil north. The newspaper of the United Socialist Party states:

"The USP has learnt that the Rajapakse government is planning a new settlement of Sinhala people in the east and north, where Tamil-speaking people have been in a majority. It aims to build several strategic military camps before it allows the Tamils to return back to their homes."

The USP stands for the united struggle of the Tamil and Sinhala working class to overthrow the Rajapakse government and achieve the national aspirations of both peoples, based on an egalitarian socialist system.

Cambridge Socialist Students will be holding a Tamil Solidarity meeting on October 29th at 7.30pm, in the Latimer Room, Clare College. Uthaya who is the co-ordinator of the campaign in Britain will be speaking.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Back to School

Sorry, been a bit lax with the blog lately as I've been moving house.

The Sheffield Star carries the headline 'FAILING' today, atop a lead story about the performances of 'Academy' schools in the city. Sheffield Park Academy, formerly Waltheof School, is performing badly. When it became an academy in 2004, it was an improving school (and by the way, £30million was spent on a new academy building even though the existing school was built in the 1990s). Academies were basically thrust on under-performing schools in poor areas, and were taken out of local government control to be run by trusts, usually Christians like Sir Peter Vardy the creationist car salesman, or some sort of cabal of education-wreckers like KPMG intent on promoting 'business and enterprise' to children.

This is all the more worrying because of last week's announcement that the previous requirement for these sponsors to stump up £2 million is to be scrapped. This might seem to make them more democratic, in that it won't be only millionaires sponsoring schools. But the political vetting process behind selecting sponsors means that in practice it will be. Imagine if the teaching unions but in a bit to run an Academy. The right-wing press would scream about the indoctrination of our kids. And yet the City of London and rich Evangelicals are somehow qualified to dabble in the education sector.

Sheffield's first two academies are run by the United Learning Trust, an Anglican charity. Its website includes a section entitled 'Private sector experience enabling public sector improvement.' A sentiment guaranteed to make the blood of any public sector worker boil. The deputy chairman of the board of its parent charity is Sir Michael Graydon, a former Air Chief Marshall in the RAF. There's lots of knights and reverends on the board. I'm sure these people have a wealth of experience and know all there is to know about educating kids in deprived inner-city areas. Much better than say, a Local Education Authority which is at least partly democratically accountable in a roundabout way. Much better than say, a teachers' union which directly represents the people working in the schools.

The obvious conclusion to be drawn is that the expansion of the Academy system has nothing to do with raising standards and everything to do with fostering a pro-capitalist, pro-'Christian morals' agenda in schools. Inherent within this is the privatisation of our education system which is continuing at all levels. Privatisation in education is doubly sinister because it will almost certainly result in a Victorian alliance of businessmen, clergy and military men influencing the thought processes of millions of children.

Short of leading a massive campaign to reverse this trend and fight for real education, the unions could always club together and buy some schools.

On a side note, I kind of hate the way the schools were renamed to give you no idea of where they actually are. In Sheffield they have the generic names of 'Park' and 'Springs' Academies. It might be a trivial point but it hardly goes along with the government spin that Academies would bring communities closer to their schools.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Climate Camp and Vestas Update

The Save Vestas blog has new ideas for how individuals can help the campaign. The next national day of action is Thursday, September 17th and the campaign is encouraging supporters to organise local protests.

Meanwhile, this year's Camp for Climate Action is happening later this week, and I've been asked to draw attention to the camp's blog, which carries the latest news and comment related to the camp.

That's all for now!

More Anti-fascism

Well I promised more on Codnor, so here's a link to a more general piece on anti-fascism that I've written for the Third Estate blog. The Third Estate is a relatively new but already well-established left-leaning political blog which covers diverse topics so check it out.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Derbyshire Protest against the BNP

Yesterday I went to the protest against the BNP's 'Red, White and Blue' festival in Derbyshire. I'll write a full post later but thought I'd share a link to a Reuters UK article.

It says hundreds, but I reckon there were about 1,500 of us. Look at the picture slideshow in the article, you can see some of the 'master race' trying to intimidate us with Hitler-salutes.

Sunday, 9 August 2009


Not that MPs are short of a bit of disposable income, but The Guardian newspaper has been investigating whether any of the 18,000 hours per week worked by unpaid interns at Westminster should be covered under the 1998 National Minimum Wage Act.

Under the legislation, all contracted workers should be paid, but an informal labour market of internships allows employers to get around this. The scandal of unpaid internships is growing during the recession as companies attempt to cut labour costs. Often, interns are effectively doing the same jobs as paid workers. A National Union of Journalists survey of recently qualified journalists found that a quarter thought that their workplace couldn't function without relying on work placements. Over half were still in placements, often unpaid, after qualifying.

Not only is this bare-faced exploitation, taking advantage of graduates in a shrinking job market, but it is closing off professions like journalism to all but the wealthy. The constant cuts in local media mean most opportunities are in the capital. Who can afford to live in central London while earning nothing? Often there is no real application procedure for a position. Landing one relies purely on having the right connections or the right school tie.

A couple of weeks ago the publication of Alan Milburn's 'Unleashing Aspiration' report confirmed what common sense and harsh reality have already taught graduates. While criticising how closed off professions like journalism are becoming, the report only offered typically feeble Blairite 'solutions'. These include extending careers advice back into primary school, and giving more children the opportunity to join a cadet force! No word against the impending hike in university fees. No word about the gross unfairness of the existence of independent schools.

Recently I've heard a range of different opinions from friends and acquaintances who are doing internships, or have done them in the past. What seems clear is that a side-effect of the growing importance of internships has been the lowering of expectations at work. Fewer and fewer graduates expect to get a decent job offer. The danger is that people accept an unwaged position because they see themselves “getting something out of it,” usually skills that will land them a well-paid job in the future. The principle of a fair day's work for a fair day's pay starts to be eroded. The logical conclusion of this argument is that employers refuse to pay anyone in the lower echelons of the workplace, on the grounds that they are learning skills which will get them a promotion. Work now, get paid later. Maybe. If we have the vacancies.

Sure, this isn't the most horrific example of exploitation on the planet at the moment. But it helps to see internships in the context of the wider “race the the bottom” in working conditions that bosses always relentlessly pursue when they get the chance. The current recession is giving them a great excuse. Plants are being mothballed, workers are being asked to work without pay out of a sense of loyalty to the company, as has happened at British Airways.

Clearly, the bosses want us fighting like cats in a sack for the few opportunities available. Clearly they want to lower our expectations to they extent that we will be grateful for a few weeks of unpaid work. Putting up with it because of a possibility that things might get better, or because “there's plenty worse off than you” will only lead to a cycle of lower expectations and embolden those bosses who are hell-bent on wrecking hard-won working conditions.

Unpaid internships should be done away with. Everyone who works should receive a fair wage. Rather than hiding behind pathetic documents like Milburn's report, the government should be spearheading the creation of decent jobs across society, and stopping long periods of unpaid labour becoming the norm in many professions.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Which Side Are You On?

I've been meaning to set up a blog for a while, so here goes. With any luck, it'll be a mixture of political analysis and some creative writing (no less political).

In that spirit, I'll kick off with a rewrite of the song 'Which Side Are You On?' that I've just written for 2009. The song originally dates from a miners' strike in the USA in 1931, and was written by Florence Reece. There's a couple of other versions that I'm aware of, the most famous being Billy Bragg's song protesting the anti-union laws brought in by the Thatcher government. I particularly like the line of his, "It'll take much more than a union law to knock the fight out of a working man." Something the Lindsey Oil Refinery workers have certainly taken to heart this year.

Which Side Are You On?

To the tune of Billy Bragg's version. The original version was written by Florence Reece in the 1930s.

They say “make sacrifices” now times are getting hard
And we must work for nothing, or else sign on and starve

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

When the bosses came with their thieving plan, the Visteon workers showed
That with solid determination you'll get what you are owed

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

The cold picket line at Lindsey was warmed by the spreading fire
Of workers' solidarity which serves to teach us and inspire

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

The Vestas struggle has united the Red flag and the Green
We're out to build a movement, the like of which you've never seen

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

From Newport to Kilmarnock, in towns of every size
The ground is shaking to the sound of the workers on the rise

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

From Gaza to Sri Lanka, deaths mounting every hour
The system we fight is a global one, but our class is global in its power

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

So when they try to close your school or cut back on your pay
The question burned on your conscience should be clear as the light of day

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?