Tuesday, 20 July 2010

A New Blog

Hi there,

Readers will have noticed that my updates have dropped off a bit recently. The good news is, I've co-founded a collaborative blog called The Great Unrest with some other writers, including Roe Valley Socialist.

I don't intend to wind up this blog, but most of what I write will now be over at The Great Unrest. So head over and check it out.

Monday, 5 July 2010

I Read Some Marx (And I Liked It)

Hat tip to Everyone's Favourite Comrade, for drawing my attention to this Katy Perry parody. I can't decide whether it's good or terrible.

Monday, 28 June 2010

England players to be evacuated from South Africa by fleet of small ships

A rag-tag fleet of volunteer ships is assembling at Ramsgate for the purposes of evacuating the England football team from South Africa following their 4-1 defeat to Germany in the second round of the World Cup.

A spokesman for the FA said, “Even if Fabio Capello's reign lasts for a thousand years, men will still say that this was his finest hour.”

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The Whig Interpretation of Football

Apologies for the continued irregularity of posts. This is because my life, like a Jabulani ball, is incredibly difficult to control.

England's World Cup performance has fallen well below even my ultra-pessimistic expectations. It's not only the results, but every aspect of the performances, that has disappointed. We have been subjected to a sort of school playground shadow-football that Franz Beckenbauer has called “kick and rush.” The hit-and-hope long ball game has bypasses the central midfield and leaves out two of England's three truly world class players, Gerrard and Lampard. The only natural left-winger is the squad hasn't been on the pitch for so much as a minute. Argentina have Champions League winner Diego Milito on the bench. Brazil brought on Dani Alves as a substitute against Ivory Coast. Who do England have warming up on the touchline? Michael Carrick and Shaun Wright-Phillips.

At least all this has done much to dispel what we could call the Whig Interpretation of Football. The idea that the English, as the inventors of football, have a god-given right to win and are on a consistent path towards recapturing the “Spirit of '66” has in the last few days started to disappear from all but the most deluded football-patriots in the media. The four-yearly mantra that this time is our best chance since 1966 is being replaced by the realisation that England's best chance to win since 1966 was, and remains, Mexico 1970.

Nevertheless, the Whig Interpretation of Football clings on. How often do we hear that all England need to do is “warm up” and “get into their stride” to become world-beaters? Or it's the Italian manager playing a rigid formation and not allowing the players to be “creative.” We can expect a football-patriotic backlash to bring back an English manager. The determination to blame foreigners is shown in many of the comments here.

England are not the only team with their problems on the pitch. The response of the French players has been to go on strike at the way their Federation is being run, although this is probably a case of donkeys led by donkeys, as it is with England. This, of course, received far more media attention than the real and much more important strike of security stewards, one of many groups of South Africans for whom the World Cup has been bad news. The Spanish, on the other hand, bounced back by actually playing some football.

We can only hope.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

LEAKED: Niall Ferguson's plans for history curriculum

When the hell of Finals is over I'll write something serious about this, but until then...

Module 1 - How Britain made everything
Candidates will learn about the ingenuity of British entrepreneurs throughout the ages. The invention of the spinning jenny, the railways, motherhood and apple pie will be discussed.

A year of this course will bring children up to man-in-the-pub levels of knowledge, reciting facts like “We Used To Make Stuff In This Country” and “Things Were Better Back Then.”

Don't mention: Children working 16-hour days.

Module 2 - Empire: Good? Or Great?

Was the British Empire merely good, or was it the best thing ever? This is the question taken up in this exciting and challenging module. Empire definitely did not destroy cultures; there was nothing worth speaking of before Europeans got there anyway. It definitely did not create famines by tearing apart social and economic fabrics in short periods of time; they were just coincidences.

Children will be taught how to tell when something, for example the use of arbitrary violence to enforce power over an entire population, was an historical aberration, no matter how consistently it occurred.

The central theme of the module will be the indisputable historical fact that democracy and free commerce go hand in hand. Just ask the people of Chile.

Don't mention: Amritsar, the Opium Wars, the Black and Tans, Surabaja, the Malayan Emergency, etc, etc

Module 3 - From Churchill to Gove: Great men of history
In order to construct a forceful national myth/narrative, it is essential to study the lives of those we wish to emulate. This means people relevant to today, like empire-builders and statesmen, not anachronisms like trouble makers, rebels, trade unionists and the like.

Don't mention: Any of this.

Module 4 - The history of TV history
Candidates will be taught how to sensationalise events and be revisionist for the hell of it. Particular emphasis will be placed on how the 20th century was one long, contiguous conflict which can be conveniently be divided into separate episodes of a TV miniseries.

Other skills will include getting the most out of one's media connections, and learning how to pull off the smug smirk of the self-assured TV historian in front of camera.

Don't mention: Time Team.

Module 5 – Who would win in a fight between Orlando Figes and Robert Service?

This one's just for fun.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Ladsheviks and North Koreans

Once the horrors of finals are over, I will be able to face the horrors of the awful Victorian-Friedmanite Tory-Liberal govt that now reigns supreme over us. Until then, here's a couple of joke items. One inspired by a funny news story, the other by the fact that we all must prepare for disappointment by choosing one non-English team to support at the World Cup.*

New Reality TV Proposal

Following the news of RMT General Secratary Bob Crow's recent behaviour at a football match, an idea for a new TV show has been pitched to the networks. Crow apparently shouted and even swore, behaviour that is totally alien and unacceptable to the vast majority of fans of the People's Game.

The new TV show (working titles include "ComLAD", "LADshevik" and "Bob Crow beats up EVERYBODY") will consist of the militant union leader beating up a new public figure every week, before discussing questions of politics within trade unions, and trade unions within wider politics.

Series One will consist of the following episodes:

1. Wille Walsh
2. Nick Clegg
3. Boris Johnson
4. Sir Alan Sugar
5. Lee Clark

Fourth International (Fifaist) Statement on the Forthcoming World Cup

The Fourth International (Fifaist) announces that in the upcoming 2010 World Cup in South Africa we will be giving footballing, but not political, support to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. It is essential for all socialists to support the degenerated workers' football team inasmuch as they represent a progressive alternative to the market-driven and patriotic "football" which has duped the working class for too long.

While drawn in the so-called "group of death", the DPRK is confedent that the only teams to meet their "death" will be the imperialists of Portugal and their running dogs in Brazil and the Ivory Coast. A victory for the DPRK in the group stages can weaken the strangehold of the bureaucracy and hasten a political revolution in the North.

For every Drogba, Kaka, and Ronaldo there are a million proletarians willing to give their life for the resistance!

* Mine is really the Netherlands, not North Korea.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Some Election Predictions

I feel like it's close enough to the time now to put my non-existent reputation on the line and utter some predicitons for the election. A mixed bag of the positive and negative.

* More people will vote Tory than the polls are saying right now. Final percentages wil be something like Con 36, Lab 29, LibDems 26.

* Labour will beat the LibDems into third in the popular vote.
No-one really likes Clegg, it's all a media shitstorm. Besides, we've been here before in '83. There will be a slight rally back to Labour in the heartlands, might not help them much in terms of seats, but it will ensure a bigger share of the vote than the Liberals.

* Until recently I thought the Tories would get a slim majority. I still think they could, but a more likely outcome might be they fall just short and govern as a minority (perhaps with Democratic Unionist help). Then we have to repeat this whole circus with a second election in a few months time. Cleggy won't get his PR, unfortunately. Not just yet.

* Salma Yaqoob will win Birmingham Hall Green for Respect.
Seems like the campaign is going well, Labour look increasingly desperate. An added bonus that I get £85 if she does. I don't know much about Respect's chances in the East End, but I'm inclined to say they won't win either of their targets there.

* Caroline Lucas will narrowly win for the Greens in Brighton Pavillion, but they won't get any other seats.

* Griffin won't win a seat for the BNP. If they had a shot at winning in more than one constituency, they might sneak in somewhere. But enough anti-fascist resources will be concentrated in Barking to deny him a victory.

* The far left vote will remain in the 1-2% bracket, with some exceptions like Dave Nellist and David Henry who will save deposits and possibly do even better.

* I will get very drunk on election night provided I finish this fucking essay before then, and probably have to spend it surrounded by insufferable Tories and insufferable Liberal Democrats (this is Cambridge).

So what do you think?

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Scrap the National Student Survey

We've been getting emails through from our colleges and faculties, trying to get us to fill out the National Student Survey (NSS). According to the emails, yesterday was the last chance to fill it out, so maybe this post is a bit late. The price of finals revision I suppose.

Our student union (CUSU) was one of the last to agree to promote the NSS, as recently as 2008-9. Until then it had rightly regarded the NSS as a pointless waste of everyone's time. Unfortunately, CUSU have thrown out this along with most other good policies they ever had. This year, the student union at Sussex (USSU) have asked members to boycott the survey in protest at management's plans to axe 115 jobs.

The NSS asks 22 “questions” about the student experience, in the form of statements which the respondent can “definitely agree” with, “definitely disagree” with, and so on. The more banal the statement, the more likely a student is to shrug their shoulders and agree with it. (3. Staff are enthusiastic about what they are teaching. I guess so.) It's easy to beef up the numbers of satisfied students when you don't ask any serious questions. It is worded in such a way as to produce pointless answers. Can you imagine an exam being set up in this way? Henry VIII was a bad man. Mostly agree. World War One was caused by mischievous ferrets. Definitely disagree.

We can only ever criticise the staff, never the management. In this paradigm, anything that's wrong with our degree must be a failure of teachers. We are not asked about the content of courses or, crucially, about the nature of the university itself. Here are some examples of questions that are not in the NSS:

Has your university announced any course cuts?
Has your university announced any job losses?
What is your university's attitude to political activity on campus?
Do you agree with your university's investments in the arms trade?

The NSS is primarily a PR exercise to attract potential applicants to particular universities. It has nothing to do with students “having their say.” If universities were really bothered about that, they would democratise and “give us a say” in the running of the place. In Cambridge, there are three student representatives on a University Council of twenty-four members. They are not elected as members of the student union, but rather in separate elections that the University fails to publicise, even fails to institute an online ballot, and turnout is ridiculously low. The student members of University Council are therefore not bound by union policy and represent no-one but themselves.

A self-selecting survey is no substitute for any form of democracy. It is yet another encroachment of managerialism into the education system. It assumes that everything is basically OK apart from some tweaks that could be made here and there, and therefore leaves no room for dissent or new ideas. The final “questions” are blatantly trying to find out how well prepared we are to be funnelled into the job market. 19. The course has helped me present myself with confidence. 20. My communication skills have improved. 21. As a result of the course, I feel confident in tackling unfamiliar problems. We might expect them next year to start crapping on about “transferable skills.”

The NSS is an unrepresentative tool used by universities to foster an unquestioning, “everything is fine” attitude among students. They only want to hear our opinion as long as it mostly overlaps with theirs. They want to teach us to be managers, or workers who are sympathetic with managerial views. Scrap the NSS, democratise the university.

May Day Greetings

Just a quick post wishing a happy International Workers' Day to all readers, wherever you may be and whatever struggles you may be involved in.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

"Whose idea was that?": Gordon, Gillian and the election pantomime

Despite Gordon Brown apparently being determined to lose the election by insulting a pensioner in the presence of the national media, I doubt his description of Rochdale voter Gillian Duffy as a “bigoted woman” will have any effect on the election result.

It's moments like this which reveal the stage-managed nature of the election. The political “walkabouts” taken by leaders surrounded by media types, suited spin doctors and members of their own party pass for genuine campaigning. Brown was heard saying “they should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that? It's just ridiculous...”

Ridiculous, presumably, that a voter could slip through the net of vetted individuals and ask a politician to explain their policies in real time without an autocue. Brown's apparent irritation with having to deal with a conversation that departed from pre-arranged scripts is an indictment of the contempt with which the entire political class treats all of us. What was interesting about his initial exchange with Mrs Duffy was how Brown kept interrupting her with a string of soundbites. “We're for fairness... for hard-working families...better schools...” It was as if he couldn't think of anything substantive to say.

What about the “bigot” comment? Duffy's politics were of a type familiar to anyone who has done any political campaigning in recent years. It could be summed up, very crudely, as Welfare State = Good, Immigration = Bad. She is, apparently, a lifelong Labour supporter who has worked in the public sector for decades. While she mentioned having to pay for the national debt, and why tutition fees were bad, her attack on Brown was mostly from the Right; lock up the criminals, crack down on the scroungers, sort out the Poles. The sort of populist, reactionary shite that will no doubt inspire a proliferation of “Gillian Duffy should be PM” Facebook groups.

So Brown perhaps really did think that Duffy's views on immigration were bigoted. But he should perhaps indulge in a bit of self-criticism. His Party's citizenship tests, “British Jobs For British Workers”, points-based immigration scheme, demonisation of Muslims, have all pandered to racism in society rather than combating it. It's no surprise that a Labour candidate like John Cowan could come out with disgusting anti-Muslim comments.

Working-class racism should be condemned as any other racism should be. Anti-immigrant feeling should be fought. But it's more than a bit rich for the leader of a Party that has presided over all this to throw around allegations of bigotry.

As usual I'm taking an Everyone Involved Is Wrong position on this one. Brown, like all politicians, wants his politics stage-managed and stale, without argument, confrontation, or possible embarrassment. Duffy should probably go and buy some Polish sausages, they're fucking delicious. The media should piss off from her front lawn and go and cover a real story.

What sort of democracy are we in where Politician Meets Voter is front page news?

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Rage Against the Liberal Democrats

The news that the RATM for Christmas No. 1 group has inspired a Facebook campaign to get the LibDems into office has been met with a positive response. The band have produced a new version of their cover of Springsteen's Ghost of Tom Joad to help the LibDem election campaign. A RATM spokesman said, “Anyone who listens to our music will know that we're especially hot on their free-market economic policies and support for the imperialist adventure in Afghanistan.”

The Ghost of Nick Clegg

Man walks into your TV studios
He's got a name and a face that no-one knows
He looks and he talks like just another posh twat
But he's different 'cos he's Liberal Democrat
Now adoring fans stretching around the corner
Welcome to the New Liberal Order
Gonna take some marginals down in the Southwest
Get people's votes because they're SICK OF THE REST

This election is alive tonight
Gonna force a hung Parliament if we're able
I'm standing under these TV studio lights
Searchin' for the ghost of old Vince Cable

Pulls the Orange Book out from behind his back
Says “Fooled you all with my charm attack
And all your false hope ain't gonna protect ya
When I impose a pay freeze on the public sector”
With a one way ticket to Downing Street
With clouds in my head and the world at my feet
A new fairer Britain and the politics of trust
To keep you warm through all our “savage cuts”

This election is alive today
Gonna break the mold of politics soon
The bankers fucked up but I'll make you pay
While I'm searchin' for the ghost of Chris Huhne

[Guitar solo]

Now Nick says, “Wherever you see a cop beatin' a guy
We'll set up an ineffectual inquiry
Where there's services to privatise, I'm laissez faire
Look to the Right, I'll be there
Wherever someone's strugglin' in a foreign nation
Fuck 'em, we're keeping points-based immigration
If you doubt where I stand on the economy
Look to the Right, you'll see me
You'll see me!
You'll see me!
You'll see me!
You'll see me!
You'll see me!
You'll see me!
You'll see me!
You'll see me!”

This election is alive tonight
Gonna add more seats to our Parliamentary tally
Who'd vote for all this shite?
I'm searchin' for the ghost of Lord McNally (wait, who?)

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Romsey Election Poster League Table

Election window posters currently up in this end of Cambridge:

Greens: Quite a lot
Liberal Democrats: Not as many as you'd think
Socialists: A good few
Labour: One
Tories: Zero

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Passengers Face TRAVEL CHAOS

Air passengers face travel chaos after a gigantic plume of volcanic ash from Iceland forced the closure of airports and the cancellation of flights. 600,000 people are affected.

A spokesman for British Airways said: "It's totally inappropriate for this cloud of ash to drift here during the busy Easter period. This will hurt businesses and families who have saved up for their holidays and probably puppies too.

"We have tried to reason with the ash cloud but it refuses to get round the table and hammer out a deal."

BA say that, even though all the airports have been shut, up to 85% of their planes are still flying.

Have you been affected by the giant cloud of ash? Why not send us your no doubt considered and reasoned opinions on this story?

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Politics and Bullshit

(Apologies for not posting for a while, a virus ate my laptop)

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefencible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

George Orwell, 1946

“We're in the future business.”

Gordon Brown, 2010

“We stand for society, that's the right idea for a better future.”

David Cameron, 2010

“The thing I really want to change is to give people greater fairness.”

Nick Clegg, 2010

“It's Greens who are standing up for fairness.”

Caroline Lucas, 2010

I recently read a great short essay by George Orwell, called 'Politics and the English Language,' from which the quote above is taken. Orwell made the point that politicians either make their language deliberately unintelligible so we have no idea what's they really think, or else use a constant stream of cliches* so we have no idea what they really think. At no time is this more true than in the run up to an election.

The quotes from the politicians that I've used above aren't chosen because they particularly illustrate this point more than anything else any of them have said. They're just what I found in about a minute of Googling.

Labour say, “A Future Fair For All.” Tories say “Now For Change.” Greens say “Fair is Worth Fighting For.” I'm not actually sure what the LibDems' main tagline is, probably “For God's Sake Give Us A Go, It's Been 85 Years!” Let's be clear: none of these are political slogans. “All Power to the Soviets” is a political slogan. “Keep Britain White” is a political slogan. Anything that someone, somewhere, might actually disagree with is a political slogan. In this election they all crap on about “fairness” (whatever that is). A few years ago it was promising a better life for “hard-working families.” As if anyone would read this and think, “I'm so fucking sick of these hard-working families, they've had it too good for too long.”

Taking this into account, forgive me for not looking forward to the televised “debates” with any excitement. I imagine they might go something like this:

What the Tories don't understand is that Britain is crying out for us to finish our unfinished business. This election is about the future. By the way, remember how awful the Tories were in the past.

We need change, based on our British values. Something a Scotsman would know nothing about.

Clegg: Both the old parties have forgotten that people on the doorstep want a fair deal in the home, at work, in the school system, on the buses, in the fields, on the beaches, in any tug-of-war contests they feel like entering. Fairness is the key to a fairer society.

No society can exist without fairness. Playing by the rules should be rewarded...

… by a government which looks forward and has bold...

… radical...

… and pragmatic policies and vis...

...ion to lead in a challenging age where tou...

...gh decisions need to be made.

At the end of the debate, the Four Horsemen of the Public Sector Apocalypse (Cuts, Pay Freezes, Redundancy and Privatisation) will ride out from the mouths of the party leaders and lay waste to the land.

How's that for an election prediction?

I may write a more serious post on the political implications of excessive bullshit in due course, if I can bring myself to listen to any more of it without breaking down and weeping.

* I'm aware that “constant stream of cliches is itself a cliché, but give me a break, it's 1a.m.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

The anti-justice system and bullying managements

Network Rail has launched a legal challenge to try to get a national rail strike by the RMT and TSSA delayed. They are citing ‘irregularities’ in the strike ballot, which will be eerily familiar to BA cabin crew. According to the BBC, the legal challenge contains a written document which states:

“The strike will have the effect of preventing about 80% of all rail services in the UK, so causing immense damage to the economy, to businesses depending on rail for freight and/or transport of commuting workers, and to a great many individual rail users.”

I’m sorry, what? How does the potential effectiveness of any strike have any bearing on whether or not the ballot was legal? Would the supposed ballot ‘irregularities’ have ceased to exist if only 30% of rail services were being cancelled? What about 50%? Before Christmas, the BA strike was postponed by a court injunction. Similarly, Mrs Justice Cox said when making her ruling:

“A strike of this kind over the 12 days of Christmas is fundamentally more damaging to BA and the wider public than a strike taking place at almost any other time of the year.”

So I suppose the ‘irregularities’ in the cabin crews’ strike ballot would have been less ‘illegal’ at a quieter time of year? All this begs the question, are strikes being ruled illegal because they might actually be effective? Do we now only have the right to withdraw our labour as long as no-one gets annoyed about it?

The complex anti-union laws that govern balloting, brought in by the Tories and maintained under 13 years of a Labour government, are designed to make it as difficult as possible for a group of workers to strike, and give managements enough time to prepare if a strike does go ahead.

Also this week, the cop who was up for assaulting a protester at last year’s G20 summit got off. He admitted to repeatedly striking her with a baton after mistaking her carton of orange juice for a weapon. It’s good to know police training doesn’t extend as far as being able to distinguish household objects from deadly weapons from a few feet away.

It has long been the case that in practice, the burden of proof falls a different way for police officers. If I beat someone repeatedly with a metal stick for threatening me with a dangerous Ribena, I would have to prove that I was acting in self-defence. The police officer got off because there was apparently no evidence that he wasn’t acting in self-defence.

Back to the strikes: Increasingly the justice system is being used as the first avenue of attack by bosses who are used to getting their own way. We shouldn’t be surprised. A common accusation in all the recent industrial disputes that have blown up into national stories has been that there exists a culture of bullying in the workplace. This was the case in the bus drivers’ dispute in South Yorkshire last year, where drivers actually voted ‘No’ to striking against a pay freeze, but overwhelmingly ‘Yes’ to striking against harsh disciplinary procedures. And just ask any BA picket what they think of their management. British Gas workers, too have voted overwhelmingly to strike, after the GMB union found that a staggering 85% of them regarded management bullying to be a problem.

Imagine, rolling out across every industry, every workplace, a generation of managers who walk straight into desk jobs, who have never done the same work as the people they are ‘in charge’ of, and who have no idea what to do when the tacky models they learned on their Management Studies courses encounter resistance when they try to force them on real people. Just like a schoolyard bully who can’t get what he wants, they throw a tantrum. Unlike the bully, though, they have powerful friends in positions of authority who will help them.

Imagine, in every industry and every workplace, a generation of workers entering jobs with no idea of what their rights are at work, with no union representation, who have had their expectations of what working life is going to be like lowered by their first experiences of service sector jobs where you have to smile while you’re treated like shit. Where the bosses expect you to stay late after your paid hours, just to help us finish something off, it’ll only take half an hour, maybe an hour, here’s a free phone in case we need to reach you at home…

People only have good working conditions because they stood up and fought for them. That’s why the whole of the working class can’t afford these strikes to fail.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

What is the point of the Global Poverty Project?

Last term Cambridge was full of leaflets and posters for the newly launched Global Poverty Project. It aims to end extreme poverty, which is defined as people living on the equivalent of less than $1.25 per day, within a generation. This is the situation 1.4 billion people find themselves in, so, says the GPP, we have 1.4 billion reasons to do something about it.

I admit I haven't been to one of their ninety minute presentations, “1.4.billion reasons.” The trailer for this begins with shots of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and the Berlin Wall coming down. So does the GPP advocate a campaign of mass civil disobedience (King), a combination of violence and non-violence to overthrow reactionary governments (Mandela) or a mass uprising along the lines of 1989? Nope. They're setting their sights rather lower:

“To make sure that we get it right, we are working closely with advisors from NGOs, government, multilateral agencies, academics and civil society, who you can meet here. The presentation answers five big questions that people have about extreme poverty:
What is extreme poverty?
Can we do anything about it?
What are the barriers to ending extreme poverty?
Why should we care?
What can I do?”

The GPP doesn't want your money, it wants to raise awareness. It wants to “catalyse a movement to end extreme poverty.” The implication is this: people are heart-shatteringly poor because we haven't got around to doing anything about it yet. If only more people knew that poverty existed. The closest GPP comes to acknowledging a structural problem is when, during the presentation, we are told that one in seven people go hungry every night even though there is enough food in the world to feed everyone one-and-a-half times over. Does the GPP advocate a radical redistribution of wealth or changed political system to deal with this? Well, their online How-To guides tell us to buy Fairtrade and write to politicians. So no.

We've been here before. The GPP is a direct continuation of the Make Poverty History campaign (remember that?) Hugh Evans and Simon Moss, the people behind the GPP, were both leaders of Australian MPH. Simon Moss “has contributed on development issues at some of the world's leading conferences including the G20, the World Economic Forum and the Clinton Global Initiative.”

The ideology behind the GPP is good old fashioned development. More roads need to be built to allow aid to be effective, and so on. Why not volunteer overseas and teach kids English? So much more useful to them than learning one of their own languages. In fact, the GPP seems to write off the agency of the world's poorest all together. This is all about speaking for them. Indigenous peoples' movements and trade unions can make way for Western corporate-wannabe grad students and PR men.

Sitting on the “Global Activation Advisory Panel” of the GPP is Joe Talcott, head of marketing at New Ltd in Australia, a media group owned by that well-known champion of the poor, Rupert Murdoch. More worryingly, the former CEO of Levi's Australian operation, Peter Murphy, is also there. Levi's record on workers' rights in the past has been pretty appalling. And their environmental record, to put it kindly, leaves a lot to be desired. In this interview while he was still CEO, Murphy says “The cost differential currently today between imported and local manufacture is some 25 to 30 per cent.” In other words, we need to ship production to places where we can afford to pay people much less, and put people in Australia out of a job while we're at it. Surely someone committed to ending global poverty would have wanted to pay workers in poor countries at Western rates?

The GPP is a step backwards. If you're a liberal concerned with global poverty, why not just get involved with Oxfam? If you're a liberal concerned with human rights, why not just get involved in Amnesty? Is it cynical to suggest that there might be a bit of CV building going on? Fighting poverty with patronising platitudes has never worked in the past. What makes the GPP think it will work now?

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Red Barons Ate My Baby

“Has your flight been cancelled? Are you stuck somewhere trying to get back to the UK? Send us your comments and pictures” pleads the BBC News website. “Have your say: Do Unions have too much power?” Well, do they? They do, don't they? Look at them! With their flags and placards and everything. Who do they think they are? Here's another story about the American Teamsters, who support the BA strike. Did you know their leadership had links with organised crime 35 years ago?

Yesterday's Sun gave a column to union-busting BA chief executive Willie Walsh. He feels sorry for the customers. He respects the cabin crew a great deal but is angry about their decision. Here are some pictures of pickets, smiling. How dare they have any fun on a picket line, while they're ruining your holiday. Why not ring us or email us if your family's hard earned holiday has been wrecked? We'd value your impartial judgement. Len McCluskey and Bob Crow make speeches that are “throwbacks” and “anachronisms” more suited to the 1970s and 1980s. And thus the media coverage of the BA strike goes on and on.

But we're not in the 1980s. OK, there are similarities: all the music is shitty electro-pop and nobody has a job. But I'm pretty sure it's 2010. Perhaps union leaders still make speeches about striking to defend members' conditions because it's still relevant. For the mainstream media, strikes and union militancy are both “a thing of the past,” and no matter how many strikes there are they will still be “a thing of the past.” No-one does it these days. The cabin crew are just an exception. Oh, and so are those railway signallers. And those others ones, the civil servants. And when our own reporters walkout against the job cuts we will make, they will be an exceptional case too.

All this works against producing a picture of a general, albeit still small, upsurge of industrial activism among many different sections of the working class, for similar reasons. The only possible effect of a strike is that more “passengers face travel chaos.” In this narrative, a victory for the employers will not give a green light for others to behave the same way. A victory for the workers will not inspire others to take a stand. Painting a dispute as an isolated, self-contained event means it is just a nuisance, the workforce are selfish no matter what their actual grievances are, the management may be incompetent but are not malicious.

Anyone who wants an alternative view of the dispute, including more extensive interviews with the strikers themselves, can check out Air Strike, a blog run by Socialist Party supporters.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Why is 'Skins' so shit?

I hung on to the fourth series of Skins until the end, hoping desperately that it would get better, or that any of the dozen half-written storylines would be brought to a conclusion. More fool me. Up until this series, Skins was more-or-less what would happen if the best night out you ever had as a teenager, and the worst night out you ever had as a teenager, kept happening over and over again. Sometimes simultaneously.

This series was obviously supposed to be darker. Naomi slept with a girl who then killed herself. Effy descended into a suicidal downward spiral and had her boyfriend beaten to death by her therapist.

I found it hard to care about any of this though. Unlike the first set of characters, it was difficult to sympathise with this lot, who just spent their time being awful to each other then unconvincingly saying “I love you, man” at the end of each episode. So Freddie was beaten to a pulp by a rogue medical professional with a baseball bat. But he was no big loss; he only spent his time masturbating and smoking weed anyway. None of them were engaged at all with the wider world. Even the pretence that Naomi was the one with a social conscience who, like, gives a shit about important stuff, was dropped pretty early. So what is Skins trying to say? Head writer and co-creator Brian Elsley says:

Skins is a show made with love and respect for you and your lives by people who try to be close to that. Is it supposed to be realistic? No. Can it be funny all the time? No. Should it be depressing? No. But it should say something important; that being young can be so fantastic, and such a disaster at the same time. And that you are not alone. Somewhere, there is a person experiencing the same things as you; whether they are stupidly hilarious or just terrible. Finally: That the way adults see you is not all you are. That is Skins.

Yes, being a teenager is good and shit at the same time. These characters, though, are only ever allowed by the writers to express themselves through sex and violence, which I think does a disservice to young people. Angry? Get high. Sad? Fuck someone. Had a bad day? Beat the shit out of a stranger.

There are lots of shots of mopey teenagers trekking across Bristol while quirky “anti-folk” music plays in the background, very little actual dialogue or plot progression in a given episode. As Effy's depression got worse, Freddie's response was only, “Effy, enough of the heavy shit, yeah?” Brilliant, he's useless. It's OK though, because he loves her so much. We know this because he filled a book up with the words “I love her” and nothing else.

At least the adult characters are, generally, two dimensional caricatures that don't demand to be taken seriously. The Sixth Form director obsessed with results, the doctor who, whenever JJ tells him about feeling worried or angry, just replies “Don't,” the jaded parents played by almost every middle-aged British comedian. This is pretty good satire. But the kids.... urgh.

Maybe I'm just getting older, and don't get it any more.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Lords, Vice-Chancellors, and Democracy

Why are we so willing to put up with such a lack of democracy in so many areas of our life?

Our political system is a democracy, but our society is far from democratic. Most people have very little power over most aspects of our lives. Three incidents from recent days have got me thinking about this.

Beckham's Green and Gold scarf

Manchester United's comfortable thrashing of AC Milan in the Champions League was somewhat eclipsed by their former captain's donning of a Green and Gold protest scarf after the match. It was great to hear, on the radio, the anti-Glazer chants in Old Trafford for the whole of the last half hour of the match. Fans at Old Trafford seem to be waiting until United are comfortably in the lead, then turning the game into a demonstration.

However, they have no recourse, no democratic method of removing the Glazers from ownership. The fans' best option currently seems to be the so-called Red Knights, a group of (rich) investors who have expressed an interest in the club. Portsmouth fans and staff have seen their club kicked around between rich owners for months, and now have to pay for the incompetence of others with relegation and job losses. The choice of one rich owner over another doesn't solve the problem.

Corpus Christi Protest

This week, students at Corpus Christi College staged a protest picnic against the college authorities' mismanagement. Students are having to bear the burden of increased costs in a college that is rumoured to be one of the wealthiest in town. Emphasis on the word “rumoured”, of course no college finances are transparent enough for us to know how rich they are, or exactly what it is they do with our money. For all we know, they could be bathing in it at weekends.

Corpus spent one million pounds on a stupid clock that doesn't even tell the time properly, as a gimmick to attract tourists. Perhaps there should have been a democratic decision to spend this money on something that would actually be useful?

Colleges lie about tiny things because they assume they can get away with it. The political memory of students is so short that they can safely misrepresent what the Kitchen Fixed Charge or cost of laundry was five years ago, in order to justify raising it. Student union reps on committees get fobbed off, lied to, or ignored. After a year they are frustrated enough to start getting pissed off, but then they have to step down in favour of some new, bright-eyed reps, who know that of course the college is an academic community and only wants what's best for its members.

The executive body of our university, the University Council, lacks even official Student Union, or staff union, representation. The university refuses to allow online voting, which would increase turnout. College JCRs are given the responsibility for running the ballot, which means that if they don't, there is no way for people to vote. There are three student representatives on a body of twenty-one, and no representation for non-academic staff. The heads of colleges and Professors could push through as many Golden Clocks as they like, and make everyone else pay for it.

Lord Adonis and the BA strikes

Transport Secretary Lord Adonis has strongly condemned British Airways cabin crews' decision to take strike action. Let's leave aside for a second the condescending language which treats people like children (decisions to strike are always “unacceptable” and “irresponsible). Let's ask the question, in whose name is Adonis speaking?

The cabin crew have voted by 80% on a 77% turnout to take this strike action. Lord Adonis has been elected by 0% of anyone, on a 0% turnout. He was made a Lord so that he could sit in the cabinet. He has no democratic mandate whatsoever. He once won a ward in a town council election. For the Liberal Democrats. Twenty years ago. But he can go on TV and, with the full authority of an elected government, condemn a group of people who have made the collective, democratic decision to defend their working conditions.

Putting a cross in a box every year is no democracy, as long as the Lords, Vice-Chancellors and union busting bosses retain all the power.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

General Election Hustings and Soul Reversal

On Tuesday night Clare College politics society held a Question Time style hustings with five candidates for the Cambridge constituency at the general election, chaired by former Tory MP and Clare alumnus Matthew Parris. Present were the candidates of the three main parties, the Greens, and Martin Booth for the Cambridge Socialists, who are standing as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Perhaps inevitably, questions were wide-ranging and candidates were not really given enough time to do them justice. It was clear that the Green and Socialist candidates were on the left, with the Tories and Labour on the right and a LibDem falling down the hole in the middle while trying to please everyone.

Tony Juniper for the Greens argued for a “different kind of economics.” This meant investment for the creation of green jobs, higher taxes on the wealthy and a Tobin Tax. Nothing there that a Socialist candidate would necessarily disagree with, but Martin went much further than Juniper when dealing with some key issues. Martin called for the meaningful nationalisation of the banks, to be run genuinely democratically as opposed to carrying on private sector practices as RBS are at the moment. He also argued that combating climate change necessitated a challenge to the capitalist system.

Implicit in this is the question that the Greens, as a party, need to face. If their “different kind of economics” is not socialism, is not aimed at giving decision-making power in society to the working class majority, then what is it? A nicer form of capitalism? If so, how will it work? How would the Greens challenge the power of big capital?

Martin very much stressed the need to mobilise people to achieve our goals, whether this be in the defence of public services or the fight against climate change. Juniper, an experienced lobbyist with Friends of the Earth, called for this or that law to be enacted. But he seemed to have no strategy for action in the (very likely) case that the political class lets us down.

Daniel Zeichner is Labour's candidate. His contributions were heavily critical of the “fantasy politics of opposition world.” I can well believe that Zeichner is not a New Labour hack right now, but he said nothing to indicate that he wouldn't become one if elected to Parliament. His answer on Afghanistan was particularly telling, as he came out with some crap about the threat of Al-Qaeda and the possibility of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal falling into terrorist hands if Western troops left, that could have been a press release from the darkest days of the Bush Jr. White House.

Zeichner said that a few years ago he pushed for Labour conference to adopt a policy of building more council housing, and that doing so cost him dear in terms of progress within the party. That this perhaps tells us a lot about the state of the Labour Party itself, was apparently lost on him.

One question, “Do you think Britain is a broken society?”, indicates how difficult it can be to put a socialist message across in circumstances like these. The question reminds me of the Day Today sketch on “Tightening up the law” or “Soul Reversal.” Seeing as the question is centred around a meaningless phrase, any answer given is meaningless. "Society is broken." "180 degrees should be the average soul reversal for a football match." And so on. Martin did a good job in limited time of trying to explain how phrases like this are used implicitly or explicitly to blame the poor in society for their own problems.

“Broken Society” is, of course, a Tory-Tabloid chestnut. Nick Hillman, for the Conservatives, came out with a few more of these, most notably that “violent crime is going up,” without giving any real statistics. He also dismissed a recent poll showing that most Tory candidates don't care about global warming with the rather unconvincing pearl of wisdom that “every party has fringes.” He also reassured us that he hasn't taken any money from Lord Ashcroft, but defended the latter as a great contributor to the Cambridge community because he provides funding to ARU. This is worth looking into; maybe he owns it, along with Belize.

It remains to be seen how far the extent of the LibDem candidate to mark out territory distinct from the other two main parties is successful. He came out against tuition fees, which the LibDems were equivocal on before they realised that scrapping this pledge would gut their student vote. He seemed to be off message, saying that there would be no drastic spending cuts under the LibDems. presumably just “savage” ones, then. He also called for the quick withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, which is something I've never heard from Clegg et al.

Despite this, there was little between the main parties' candidates. Juniper was impressive, but Martin was the only panel member to get across any ideas about a totally different political or economic system, and the need to involve people in grassroots political campaigning.

Read Martin's own take on the evening here.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Junk Mail Vol. 2

So the Tory leaflet finally came through. Guess what? It's made to look like a regular newspaper (intouch). Guess what else? It has a bar chart. The Tories won a general election poll in the Cambridge News. i.e. not a real vote in an actual election.

In fact the Tories are so "intouch" that they have to devote an entire quarter of the leaflet to a bullshit survey finding out what residents want. This includes such helpful questions as "Do you think it is time for a change of government?" and "Are you worried about the huge debts built up by the Labour Government? My answer to both these questions is yes, so maybe the Tories are under the impression that I will vote for them before glaciers reach the gates of hell.

They are playing a heavily localist card, promising more national resources for Cambridge and greater "academic freedoms", whatever that means, below an obligatory picture of King's College chapel.

Also there is a funny picture in a section on anti-social behaviour where it looks like David Cameron is about to be arrested by two policemen. We can dream.

Petition against summary expulsions at Sussex Uni

Six students have been suspended for their part in a peaceful demonstration against cuts at Sussex Uni.

This action shows that university managements are shaken and worried by protests but also sets a dangerous precedent for responses to protests in the future.

See the heavy handed police response to the protest here and sign the petition for the reinstatement of the six here.

Check for updates at

Friday, 5 March 2010

SU Manifesto Parody

Soon I will write a real post about student union elections. But for now, suffice to say that there are far too many candidates with manifestos that look like this:

Hi. I'm running for [position] in [students' union name] because I care about what the union can do for you. I am a friendly and approachable person with the passion and commitment to take our union forward. I am passionate about my CV and committed to my future career.

I have lots of experience sitting on some committee you've never heard of in a position you didn't elect, where my spineless toadying brought minimal changes. I was head [boy/girl] at my school full of rich kids who faced no actual problems, and for some reason think that this fact is relevant to my campaign for a leadership position in a union. I have also served as [treasurer/secretary/persistent arse licker] of the debating society which is weird because I have no discernible opinions about anything.

I will aim to represent all students rather than push a political agenda, because I'm afraid that if I tell people what I think about things, they will disagree with me. I will rise above factional politics by refusing to ever commit myself to anything. Students are sick of politics getting in the way of achieving change. I will improve communication by sending out more of the same emails that people will, for some reason, actually read this year.

Some people say that students have become apathetic. To them I say: I don't care about this. But I will put my name to some wanky liberal campaigns that no-one except a hard-right nut-bar could complain about. Probably something to do with the environment. But I pledge to continue to use the myth of student apathy as a cover for my right-wing views.

I have no principles in which to ground my policies so I will just write the first thing that comes into my head, something like [more vending machines/more student discounts/something vague to do with sports facilities] to make it sound like I've actually thought anything through.

I think it's imperative that we keep the cap on tuition fees because I want to pay lip service to a tradition of student radicalism to which I have never belonged. We can achieve this through mature negotiations and not mindless activism. I passionately believe that people are stupid enough to fall for this crap. We need to find dynamic and efficient new ways of sitting on our arse for a whole year while the Higher Education sector is smashed to pieces.

Vote for me because I am the pragmatic, experienced candidate and I will deliver on my promises, if you can remind me what any of them were. Here is a photo of me in some costume or other during freshers' week to remind you that I like a laugh, really. And in the end, isn't that what student unions are really about?

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Things I keep seeing/hearing in music videos

People who you think are a band because of their name but are in fact just one person. Marina and the Diamonds, Florence and the Machine, Owl City.

Mr Hudson. You know what, Mr Hudson? Why not write some of your own songs?

People dancing in front of huge walls of light. Why does this happen so often? Who builds the walls? Has anyone thought of the carbon footprint?

Excessive autotuning. Surely the machine should get some credit?

Women with several different hairstyles over the course of one song. Does this mean they have to sing the same song over again with different hair? Isn't this a big waste of time?

Somebody please make a good music video.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Occupation at University of Westminster

Students at the University of Westminster are occupying their Vice-Chancellor's office in protest against cuts and job losses in the university.

For more information see their blog http://www.fightcutsatuow.blogspot.com/

Friday, 26 February 2010

Student Churnalism

This week I had an article printed in the comment section of The Cambridge Student (TCS). I was writing about the importance of a left-wing challenge to the three main parties at the next election, and in so doing, mentioning Martin Booth’s Socialist candidacy in Cambridge.

Put frankly, my article was butchered by the editors. I can live with this. I’m used to articles being changed, cut down, or rejected outright. What I want to focus on is the political nature of the editors’ decision. What they did was take out not only my endorsement of a candidate, but even any mention of Martin’s candidacy and the existence of TUSC nationally. The reason they gave was that, as a neutral newspaper, they couldn’t print any article that endorsed a particular candidate. This is clearly rubbish. No readers will equate one article, by one writer, in one issue, with the endorsement of the whole paper.

In the student press, as in the grown-ups’ media, the main parties get free coverage all year. In fact, one of the first things TCS printed this academic year war a full page given to Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative representatives to explain what their parties would do for students this year. No other, much more active political groups on campus were given the same opportunity. Fine, that’s the editors’ prerogative of course. No-one would argue that it amounts to an “endorsement” of the main parties. But neither is it neutral or impartial.

Student newspapers can be playgrounds for aspiring journalists who write in the same style, about the same issues, and with the same tired arguments that we read in the comment and opinion sections of national newspapers. One blogger for the online version of Varsity, Cambridge’s independent student paper, has illustrated this point well in a couple of recent articles. Firstly, during the recent referendum on NUS affiliation, he likened the leaders of the “No” campaign, who were opposing the NUS from a fairly left-wing standpoint, to early-90s Tories Norman Tebbit and Roger Knapman. This is either deliberately misleading, or a desperately poor analogy, presumably designed to show off the author’s knowledge of big-boy politics. Either way, it’s bad journalism. Secondly, in an otherwise interesting article, he described James Purnell, who recently announced that he would be standing down from Parliament, as “one of the foremost thinkers of the centre-left.” The tired media cliché about Purnell’s supposedly towering intellect can be debunked by a quick glance at this confused and pointless article he wrote for the Guardian. As for “centre-left,” ask anyone who has been affected by his Thatcherite welfare reforms.

I don’t expect student journalists to be particularly good at writing, still less have time to produce earth-shattering investigative pieces. Everyone is learning, of course. But surely showing some imagination, and not producing pale reflections of something I can read in any issue of the Guardian, could stop us all unwittingly getting on the train to Hacksville.

TCS has a self-selecting editorship. In contrast, many other student union papers have their editors elected by the student body. This is a better system, but the idea that student papers must be neutral permeates here too. The Facebook group for one of the candidates running for editor of The London Student wants the paper to be “impartial at its core” but “support student campaigns.” A neutral paper which supports certain campaigns? First one to square that circle wins a prize.

Student papers could choose to be weapons in the fights students wage in their own interests, against their university managements and against the government. They could choose to seek out the less-known views and stories. They could choose to take student politics on its own terms rather than treating it like Westminster-lite. Activist journalism doesn’t mean distorting or ignoring facts. It just means using them for something more worthwhile than a nice liberal academic chat about the nature of representation or what John Stuart Mill said about something-or-other.

To be honest though, I’m not holding my breath.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Can You Believe This Guy?

So a senior Tory MP has lambasted us paupers for not understanding the hectic life of a create of Westminster. Nicholas Winterton, Tory MP for Macclesfield, says MPs need to travel first class on trains to get work done, and so they don't have to mix with the "totally different type of people" one might meet in standard class.

He's right about the peace and quiet though, Last time I was on a train on the Midland mainline, someone had had the bright idea to make three out of eight coaches first class. There were about half a dozen people in each of those three and the rest of us crammed in like sardines. Now I wonder if any of them were MPs.

Believe it or not, Winterton has been on the Modernisation of the house of Commons Committee for the last few years.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Statement from the Executive Committee of the Kicking Hazel Blears in the Face Party

The Kicking Hazel Blears in the Face Party (KHBFP) was set up in 2009 in the wake of the expenses scandal at Westminster. Our aim was to kick Hazel Blears in the face from a revolutionary Marxist angle.

Last week's news that the Hazel Must Go! campaign have selected their candidate for the general election is a significant step forward for anti-Blearsists everywhere.

While this campaign omits face-kicking from its programme, the Executive Committee of the KHBFP have decided that we are willing, in the name of Left unity, to dissolve our organisation into the wider campaign.

We are concerned that ambiguities in the name Hazel Must Go! might embolden revisionist ideas. Sections of the working class might think that we just want Hazel Blears to 'go away', 'stop bothering us' and so on. Such demands are utopian under capitalism. Hazel Blears is an inevitable product of the capitalist system. A kick in Hazel Blears's face is a kick in the face of the bourgeoisie.

The KHBFP has always been wary of substitutionism. We cannot pretend that our few dozen boots can replace the action of the millions of boots of the working class acting as a class. We adopted the slogan: “If you want an image of the future, imagine a boot stamping on Hazel Blears's face, forever.” We cannot hope to achieve this with our current numbers. We would get very tired. But once the masses and their boots move into action, there is no limit to what we can kick.

In the spirit of co-operation we advance some practical ideas for the campaign to take up:

In response to the closure of Corus on Teesside, Middlesborough's football team recently wore Save Our Steel t-shirts during a match. We propose approaching Manchester United, themselves labouring under the heel of a Yanqui imperialist oppressor, to use training balls with a picture of Hazel Blears's face on them. The symbolic gesture of Hazel Blears being kicked in the face will not be lost on the wide layers who want to see it happen for real.

A speaker tour with Tony Benn (“I didn't fight in the war for Hazel Blears to be able to go around without getting kicked in the face”) and Billy Bragg (“Not many people know that the original English flag was a red St. George's cross – over Hazel Blears's face”).

A poster campaign. “Hazel Blears: the face of a rotten system.”

We expect similar announcements soon from the Why Doesn't Hazel Blears Fuck Off and Die Alliance, and the Salford Anti-Blearsist Peoples' Liberation Organisation.

Forward to victory.

Yours with solidarity and steel capped toes,


Sunday, 14 February 2010

TUSC takes shape

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition for the general election is beginning to take shape.

Let's have a look at a couple of newly confirmed candidacies.

The updated list of candidates on the TUSC website includes some of the seats the SWP are intending to stand in. Maxine Bowler will be standing in Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough, against David Blunkett. Importantly, the BNP's Mark Collett, subject of the Channel 4 documentary Young, Nazi and Proud, will be standing in the same area. Collett openly expressed admiration for the Nazis and virulently homophobic and racist views. There's no doubt that, in Brightside, one of the most working class constituencies in the country, the BNP will be trying to promote itself as pro-worker, a sort of 'Old Labour' for white workers. The need to directly combat this propaganda and prevent the BNP from gaining a foothold in working class communities is one of the most important reasons for TUSC to stand.

The Hazel Must Go! Campaign in Salford and Eccles has voted to affiliate to TUSC, and their candidate David Henry also has the backing of the Green Party. It appears that David has had to resign from the Greens as a technicality, in order to stand under a different name, but they are still backing his candidacy. This is an example of a broad campaign to get rid of a particularly hated MP, but of course it is not just motivated by personality. The campaign's affiliation to TUSC gives it a clear left-wing, pro-working class orientation.

It is not yet clear whether candidates in local elections will be using the TUSC name, or keeping the name of the constituent organisations.

More details on TUSC campaigns as and when!

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Junk Mail

Recently we've received through our door a couple of election leaflets from the Lib Dems and Labour. You know the type. The ones that have titles like newspapers, and dates on them, to make it look like they're put out regularly rather than just appearing whenever the parties want your vote.

Nothing from the Tories yet. But then, as the Lib Dems' Cambridge Herald reminds us several thousand times, it's a “two horse race” between themselves and Labour in Cambridge, with the Tories a distant third. They include the obligatory bar charts in case we can't work out what this means. The Lib Dems always do this. In Sheffield Graves Park ward, where they have a comfortable majority, they constantly tell us that “only the Liberal Democrats can beat Labour here.”

Well, yes. You already have. Well done. What have you done for us lately?

Amidst the uninspring localist waffle, the Lib Dems do take the time to remind us, what with this being a town with a few students in it, that they have “reaffirmed” their commitment to scrapping tuition fees. Good to know it was only the leader of the party who wanted the pledge scrapped last Autumn, then.

Moving on from the Yellow Tories, the Cambridge Rose is keen to show what a dynamic, campaigning organising the Labour Party is. Of course, to do this they have to distance themselves from the government. Gordon Brown is mentioned a grand total of once, as the candidate praises his plan for a pathetically low tax on financial transactions. “While the bankers got rich,” local Labour candidate Daniel Zeichner teaches us, “We suffered.”

Yes indeed. And of course, placing the financially sector at the centre of the economy, or rather placing the economy at the mercy of the financial sector, has been Labour Party policy for a long time. But let's not dwell on that, Zeichner pleads. Or even mention it. Labour's “top priority” is fighting the unemployment that their policies created in the first place.

I'm convinced.

And what does Zeichner have to say about a Parliamentary system mired in scandals?

“I don't agree that politics in Britain is broken. Where else in the world do senior politicians attend local meetings, come knocking on your door or sit in your kitchen to talk through the issues?”

I feel a warm glow inside.

A glow of rage.

Both parties are playing the we're-the-best-ones-to-beat-the-Tories game, and neither of them are telling us anything new. Just more bland platitudes about how they're working hard for us. Of course this sot of political language is designed to keep people's expectations incredibly low, so when whoever wins inevitably fucks us over, we're not too disappointed about it.

Fortunately there will be a Socialist candidate in Cambridge, putting forward a genuine alternative.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Occupation against cuts at Sussex University

It seems that an occupation has begun at Sussex Uni as part of an anti-cuts campaign there. The initial statement of the occupiers reads:

We have occupied the top floor of Bramber House, University of Sussex, Brighton. There are 106 of us.

The decision to occupy has been taken after weeks of concerted campaigning during which the university management have repeatedly failed to take away the threat of compulsory redundancies and course cuts.

We recognise that an attack on education workers is an attack on us.

The room we have occupied is not a lecture theatre but a conference centre. As such, we are not disrupting the education of our fellow students; rather, we are disrupting a key part of management’s strategy to run the university as a profitable business.

They’re occupying everywhere in waves across California, New York, Greece, Croatia, Germany and Austria and elsewhere – and not only in the universities. We send greetings of solidarity and cheerful grins to all those occupation movements and everyone else fighting the pay cuts, cuts in services and jobs which will multiply everywhere as bosses and states try and pull out of the crisis.

But we are the crisis.

Profitability mean nothing against the livelihoods destroyed, lost homes, austerity measures, green or otherwise. We just heard we’ve increased ‘operational costs’ – they’d set out the building for a meeting and now they’ll have to do it again

We’ll show them “operational costs.”

Occupy again and again and again.



-All the occupiers of the 8th of February.

More info at the Stop the Cuts blog here and the local Socialist Party blog

Friday, 5 February 2010

TUSC website launched

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition has launched its website for the general election.

The site includes the Coalition's policies and an initial list of election candidates.

Check it out here.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Football and Activism

“The thing about football – the important thing about football – is that it's not just about football.”
Terry Pratchett

I remember once going on a school trip to Salford University for a talk, during my politics A-levels. I can't remember exactly when, but it must have been 2005/2006. I have no idea what the day was actually about, but I do remember one thing. The whole area was plastered with “Love United Hate Glazer” stickers. Since then, the LUHG slogan has become commonplace on toilet doors in pubs up and down the country.

The Glazer family have treated United to the neat trick of going into debt to buy the club, then using the club's own money to pay off the debts. Why this is allowed absolutely baffles me, so for reasons of sanity I'll not try to go into the whole affair here. The point is that the threat of collapse, that has long been a reality for smaller clubs, is working its way up the leagues. Big money in football has meant that a lack of success, or a sudden decline in a club's fortunes, can lead to financial oblivion.

Millionaire control of football clubs is just another example of the lack of democracy that afflicts our entire society. And no, it doesn't matter whereabouts in the world they come from. A rich bastard is a rich bastard. Football clubs are not community organisations, they are chasing after money. Some fans have rejected this state of affairs outright, such as those who founded FC United of Manchester or AFC Wimbledon.

The latest round of anti-Glazer protests have taken the form of fans wearing Green and Gold, the colours of the old Newton Heath F.C., that became Man Utd in 1902. This seems to be invoking a simpler time in the past, when clubs were not completely detached from their fans. The disgraceful eviction of anti-Glazer protesters from Old Trafford by stewards clearly shows the contempt the club's bosses have for their own fanbase. Similarly, see the recent comments by Portsmouth's executive director Mark Jacob, directed at dissenting fans.

Big institutions more often than not change principled individuals, rather than get changed themselves. Well known man of Labour – and Knight of the Realm – Alex Ferguson, has come a long way from his days as a Glasgow shop steward and lined up fully behind the Glazers so far. An account of a recent mass meeting of United fans on the RepublikofMancunia blog contains the following interesting proposal:

“Draft a letter for as many fans as possible to send to Sir Alex Ferguson to ask for his resignation. As a socialist and a man concerned for the club, he should show the Glazers exactly what he thinks of them. Poor results and failure to qualify for Europe would mean the Glazers could no longer afford to even keep us afloat and we would go in to administration.”

Clearly a layer of fans are actively wishing for financial meltdown as the only way they can see of getting rid of the hated owners. Big clubs like United are so entrenched as institutions that it seems unlikely, unfortunately, that Ferguson or the fans could change the direction of the whole thing. The power lies where the money is. Perhaps things will have to “get worse before they get better,” with clubs folding before being bought out by fans. But the game would need massively restructuring to make sure the new owners didn't just behave like the old ones. Football as a sport rooted in the community – outside the lower leagues – seems unfathomable in a profit-chasing society.

More depressingly, the uglier politics of the football crowd was evident last weekend too. One of the biggest marches yet staged by the far-right English Defence League took place in Stoke-on-Trent. The EDL, by all accounts, came about through football hooligan networks and their far-right connections. Of course, most fans want nothing to do with organisations like this, but the Left abandoning the terraces would mean that any political stories and voices from the game in the media came from the Right.

It should go without saying that football is an important battleground for political activism. During the posties' strikes, the Trades Council here in Cambridge organised bucket-collections at a Cambridge United match. Middlesborough games have been a focus of portests against the closing of Corus's steel factory at Redcar.

Perhaps it's cliched to say that football is a microcosm of society. That probably isn't true. But a lot of it is in there. The millionaire bosses (the owners), their henchmen (the directors), the tiny minority of working class people elevated to celebrity status to give us something to aspire to (the players). Even the fans are stratified by economics. Are you in a Sky-sponsored executive box or stuck behind a pillar? Or perhaps priced-out of the game altogether by expensive tickets? Then there are people who decide what we are allowed to watch, and when, and how much it will cost us (the media). And, just occasionally in the midst of the whole slog, the chance of seeing the underdog win for a change.

Beautiful game, ugly future?

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition: We are where we are

So at long last the formation of a new left-wing coalition has been announced to stand candidates in the general election. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) is backed by the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers' Party and a handful of prominent trade unionists, most notably Bob Crow of the RMT. It is a progression from last year's No2Eu, in both name and programme. But there are undoubtedly problems.

Disappointing is the apparent decision of the Alliance for Green Socialism not to participate, supposedly because the name lacked the words 'Green' or 'Environmentalist.' If this is true, I find it difficult to understand, because they participated in No2EU last year, which had a much worse name and much less environmentalist content to its programme. Perhaps there is another reason for AGS's non-involvement, but it would be sad to lose them.

The Communist Party of Britain's executive committee have stated that they won't be participating. Again I find this hard to fathom. They are sticking to their normal 'Vote Labour' line but also imply they will be standing candidates under their own name. Well, there was nothing stopping them standing as part of TUSC and advocating a Labour vote in constituencies where TUSC wasn't standing.

As for Respect, the leadership around Galloway has declared itself against any alliance with the 'far left' in favour of the Green Party (which has already backfired on them). There seems to be a sizeable minority in Respect in favour of something like TUSC though. I'm not sure how the organisation functions, and whether local branches would be able to canvas for TUSC without getting into trouble with the leadership.

Some people may well argue that the CPB, with their soft-Stalinism, and Galloway, with his unpredictable ego and sometimes deplorable political behaviour (cup of tea, Mr Saddam?) are no big loss to a left unity project. I wouldn't go that far. There are decent people in both groups. And the CPB's Morning Star is, for all its faults, a daily newspaper.

On a more positive note it seems that the SWP are on board, and want to stand 6 candidates under the TUSC banner. This will probably include Cambridge so if I can wrench myself away from the academic hell of my final year around April time, there will be some electioneering for me to do down here.

I'm not sure on the position of locally based parties like the Wigan, Leigh and Makersfield People's Alliance that was set up a while back. They may want to keep their name and work with the coalition. The WLMPA includes members of Respect so if they did decide to back TUSC, that would be interesting.

The RMT as a national union is not backing the coalition, but individual branches can. This seems to have already occurred in Portsmouth. This will test the desire for a political alternative within the ran-and-file of the RMT in a way that No2EU did not, and will hopefully push the leadership towards more political action in the future.

As yet there is no website for the Coalition, and so nowhere to really direct interested people to apart from the Facebook group. This should be rectified as quickly as possible, preferably with details of local campaigns in places where we know TUSC candidates will definitely be standing, for example Dave Nellist in Coventry.

The main problem with TUSC is that its development hasn't come sooner. There should have been local left unity groups forming ages back, around the time the WLMPA got going. Waiting for the backing of national groups before putting anything on the ground wasn't, I think, the best way of going about it, especially seeing as some of these groups seem to have pulled out anyway. The British Left seems to suffer from a 'bullet point' syndrome. Groups get together to agree a list of demands they can unite around, and if they disagree with some of the end result they tend to walk away rather than staying and fighting their position at a future meeting, and working together in the meantime. This is, in my experience, particularly common in the student movement. TUSC has to an extent tried to overcome this by advocating the freedom of affiliated groups to put out their own material over and above the agreed common platform. So minor programmatic disagreements shouldn't, in theory, result in groups walking away at the first sign of disagreement. But, as I've said, we're not off to a great start in that respect.

Local TUSC groups should have been ready to hit he ground running, because unity discussions shouldn't have been held only at a national level. The best way of building trust and co-operation on the Left is for comrades to be working together on the ground. TUSC supporters in different towns and cities should get together, invite other interested groups and community activists, and begin selecting their candidates and planning their campaigns. After all, we don't have much time.

I'd like to see some sort of conference after the election, when TUSC has hopefully attracted a new layer of activists and 'independents'. This would be a big step forward from the national committees of interested groups meeting. No-one would be talking about founding a new party just now, but at least we could ready local TUSC groups to fight against the vicious social cuts programme to be unleashed by whoever wins the election. Hopefully supporters will canvass for comrades in organisations other than their own, and the appearance of unity will be given some substance.

Obviously we're not looking at big votes. Media coverage will be slim (we can and should blame the bourgeois biased media, but I think the Left can do better to try getting the attention of the press). Some candidates will get respectable votes. Success will be judged more, I think, on how well we sink roots into working class communities to prepare for the storms ahead.

It's been a long frustrating road to this point, but we are where we are.

Viva TUSC!

More thoughts at AVPS and Though Cowards Flinch

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Northern Lines

Northern Lines


This is where we always used to start from
In those days, a slow tide up the Thames.
Horrific, innocent days not so long ago.
I think of memory's healing properties.
I think of failure.

(Charing Cross)

No-one gets hit by love like a returning memory,
A sudden realisation of a long-held secret truth.
These changes of heart
Are too much to hope for.
I think of forcing the issue.
I think of direct action.

(Leicester Square)

London was always a mystery, a parcel
And all the joy in the unwrapping because inside it always disappointed.

(Tottenham Court Road)

When I grow up I want to be the person who says the stations on the tube,
Sounds like an easy job.
When I grow up I want to pin eras to paper
With the same truths that frighten childish bravery,
And draw out conflict in the familiar
Pulse of dead-end vibrant city life.
Want to see necessary changes displayed neatly,
Like on a tube map with nothing but time
Standing in the way,
And the world a collection of inevitable destinations.
When I grow up I want to be a writer,
Sounds like an easy job.

(Goodge Street)

Many nights I've been on coaches, distance passing imperceptibly
While I've tried half-heartedly to sleep.
On the tube there's no distance no direction
Just a consuming impatient journey
Forcing me, just for a second, to close my eyes
And wonder why I'm taking it at all.
But just because you can't see something doesn't mean it's not there
So wake up, look at the map again.
Wake up. We're moving forwards.
I think of five years.
I think of planning.

(Warren Street)

There's some angry sermon here,
Some message I could tease out if my mind
Wasn't stuck between a lost past and a stolen future.


Thanking circumstance for my
Freedom to sigh over small problems
And kicking some sort of discipline into myself,
I turn to face the next one.
Thinking of absence.
Thinking of failure.
Thinking of stops on the journey.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

the Great Unrest, 1910-1914

In the years before the First World War, Britain experienced some of the most militant and widespread industrial conflict in its history. Known as the Great Unrest, this episode is totally ignored in the accepted history of the country. Everyone is taught about the wonderful Liberal government of the time, which cleared slum houses, introduced some social security legislation, and reformed the House of Lords. No-one is taught that these grand reformers were hated at the time. Hated by suffragettes for their refusal to allow women the vote, and for their brutal treatment of suffragette prisoners. And hated by the working class.

The unions
At this point, the unions were still mostly craft organisations. Many were tiny, local organisations. Even nationwide unions, like the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, shut unskilled workers out of their organisation. This sectionalism made strike action ineffective, and maintained a hierarchy within the working class that prevented unity.

The great wave of ‘new unionism’ which had organised unskilled workers from the matchgirls’ and dockers’ strikes of 1888-9 had never fully consolidated itself, and membership of these unions was far from stable. Then, in 1901, the Taff Vale judgement shattered the economic power of unions by making them legally liable for damages incurred during strikes.

The background to the Unrest was a decline in real wages since the start of the century, the overturning of the Taff Vale judgement in 1906, and the spreading of radical ideas among important sections of the working class.

Many who tried to overcome the shortcomings of existing unions embraced syndicalism. They pushed for the amalgamation of unions within the same industry, and a militant policy of no compromise with the bosses. Tom Mann was one such figure. The veteran leader of the great dock strike of 1889 a knack for being in the right place at the right time. After a number of years in Australia, he arrived back in London in 1910 to found the Industrial Syndicalist Education League (ISEL). Within months the country would be gripped by a prolonged strike wave which was heavily influenced by the ISEL’s ideas.

Others followed the idea of One Big Union, that all workers should be organised in the same union, as elaborated by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). However, persuading workers to leave their old unions for a new, untested organisation is always difficult, and this policy met with little success, even in such a militant period.

The transport workers were ahead of others in the race to amalgamation, having founded the National Transport Workers’ Federation (NTWF) in 1910. To begin with, this was as the name suggests a federation of separate unions acting together, but it eventually became the Transport & General Workers’ Union in 1922.

Sympathy action

The watchword of all these syndicalists and industrial unionists was ‘Solidarity.’ They believed in involving the whole of the working class whenever one group was fighting for something. This appealed to trade unionists, even the leaders, who had experienced defeat after defeat due to sectionalism and isolation.

So when Havelock Wilson of the National Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union, which was pushing for a wage rise, appealed to the transport workers for help in June 1911, they readily responded and the unrest spread like a fire across the country. In the summer of 1911 most major ports and railways were paralysed by strike action. As workers joined in, they added their own demands against their own bosses. Years of quiescence fell away and demands got more and more militant. In South Wales, school students came out on strike, and some policemen.

In Liverpool, the situation almost reached general strike proportions. Companies could not move goods without a permit from the strike committee. Huge demos saw Orange and Green bands marching side-by-side, in a city that was at the time usually plagued by sectarian conflict due to the Irish situation. The results of the 1911 strikes were a mixed bag. Most workers achieved significant pay rises and other concessions. Often skilled workers would stay out until everyone in their factory was promised the same benefits. Use of wildcat action had shocked the bosses, just as it still has the capacity to do, and they were desperate to get people back to work.

Rank-and-file trade unionists began to form their own networks. Some miners had studied at Ruskin College, Oxford, and been involved in a strike to allow a Marxist curriculum (something this modern-day student can only dream of!) in 1909. They returned to South Wales and produced a pamphlet, ‘The Miner’s Next Step’, which urged the men not to leave things in the hands of their own leaders. Decisions on when and how to strike should be made by a full ballot, they argued, and any policy of conciliation should be rejected. Even the relatively conservative engineers of the ASE locked their executive, which was pursuing a policy of conciliation, out of its own offices!

From unofficial to official
By 1912 the leaders of the big unions felt confident enough to call national strikes of their own. The miners struck for four weeks, and the NTWF on the waterfronts for two months. But these strikes faltered due to a lack of sympathy action. Perhaps people were strike-weary by then. Perhaps they felt like they had achieved their own demands already, and did not see how strikes could go beyond demanding higher wages and start to change society by showing that it was the workers who run the economy. More likely, the organisation did not exist on the ground to keep pulling off such startling success sympathy action. Active shop stewards committees were a rarity and they would only come to be seen as vital due to the experiences of the First World War. But more on that another time, perhaps.

The biggest fight took place in 1913. Led by James Connolly and Jim Larkin, the legendary Dublin lock-out lasted for months, and brought the working-class of Dublin to the brink of victory, and at the same time to the brink of starvation. The Times accurately described it as ‘a state of civil war between labour and capital.’ Railworkers in major English rail centres were involved in ‘blacking’ Dublin goods, but the ‘official’ leadership of the Labour movement on this side of the Irish Sea refused to flex their muscles, and the lock-out ended in a stalemate.

The strikes were often marked by violent confrontation. The most famous was the Tonypandy Riot in November 1910, during which South Wales miners attacked shops and mining officials houses in the town of Tonypandy. In Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, railwaymen were assisted in acts of sabotage by miners. In Chesterfield strikers set the railway station on fire and were dispersed with bayonet charges.

It was the state, however, that showed its willingness to use force.In Liverpool during the transport strike, troops were called in and one man shot dead. Two gunboats were deployed in the Mersey. There were more deaths at the hands of the police in other parts of the country, and in South Wales Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary, came close to deploying troops against the miners.

During the miners’ strike in 1912, Tom Mann was imprisoned for reprinting in his paper a leaflet, ‘Don’t Shoot’, appealing directly to soldiers. It argued that they were of the same class as those they were being used against, and passionately argued for them to rediscover their humanity and class solidarity, and not be used as tools of their rulers.

The Left
The ISEL collapsed in 1913. But, as it was only ever a propaganda body, its success can’t really be judged by the length of its existence. Its ideas spread well beyond its own ranks. It affected members of the British Socialist Party (BSP). Unbelievable as it may sound to socialists today, the leaders of this party were opposed to strikes, believing them to be a distraction from the purer work of educating people about the New Jerusalem. But many of their members, caught up in this ferment and sometimes finding themselves leading industrial struggles, saw through this crazy policy. They began a serious orientation of socialists towards union work. BSP syndicalists addressed a ‘Manifesto to railway workers’ which argued for railwaymen to ally with miners and transport workers in future battles. Birmingham BSP issued an ‘anti-political’ manifesto in September 1911, arguing that the party should turn away from elections and plunge into organising strikes.

But the leadership had tight control over the organisation. Disillusioned, over half of the BSP’s membership of 40,000, including Tom Mann himself, left during the Great Unrest. A dynamic socialist party which took industrial disputes seriously and attempted to develop strategies for winning them would have been going from strength to strength.

The Daily Herald

The Daily Herald appeared as a strike-sheet of printers in January 1911, and was relaunched as a socialist daily in April 1912. It threw open its columns to all shades of leftwing opinion, the more radical the better, and became the socialist movement’s main organ of debate. It was dynamic, at times humourous and irreverent, and revolutionary. The official Labour leaders attempted to launch a bland rival, the Daily Citizen, which soon folded. In later years they were able to take over the Herald and sell it to Lord Northcliffe, and it was to become the odious Sun. This is possibly one of the most depressing stories in the history of the socialist press, so I’ll not dwell on it.

Socialists in parliament
In 1907, a young activist called Victor Grayson won the Colne Valley constituency in a by-election. He stood as an Independent Socialist without the backing of any national party. As soon as he got to the Commons he was suspended for a one man protest about poverty, shouting, ‘I will not give order in a chamber that starves people wholesale!’ In 1910 he lost his seat, but George Lansbury was elected at the same time, and carried on Grayson’s tradition of rebellion. In a debate about the government’s disgraceful treatment of suffragettes he shouted at the Prime Minister, ‘you are beneath contempt.’ He was only thrown out of the house when MacDonald and Snowden, leaders of his own party, asked him, still shouting as he went.

Grayson declared, ‘The business of a Socialist Party in the House and in the constituencies can be defined in one word. Fight.’ But the prevailing mood in the movement during the Unrest was anti-Parliamentary. No-one thought the existing political system could do anything for them, which is perhaps what led Grayson and Lansbury to turn the House into a platform for protest in such a blunt and forceful way. At the height of the dock strike in 1911, Ben Tillett had declared that it ‘had done more for labour in the past few days than Parliament would do in a century.’ He would later become an MP himself, supporting the government during the first World War.

The Unrest convinced many of the need for amalgamated unions. For the rank-and-file this was a means to achieve militant ends, but the leaderships saw that they could not survive without adopting the position as well. As a result the National Union of Railwaymen brought most rail unions together in 1913. After the war, the ASE would amalgamate with others to form the Amalgamated Engineering Union, with Mann as its first General Secretary. Mann had stood for General Secretary of the ASE 1913, getting around a quarter of the votes on a ticket of ‘One union for engineers working class solidarity and direct action.’ He saw the value of running for union positions when the time was right, but was always aware of their limitations too.

An interesting aside to the Unrest is that it helped open up gap between bourgeois and working-class feminists. Emily Davison, who died in 1913 by throwing herself under the King’s horse, was collecting money for dockers’ families a year earlier. Meanwhile, Emmeline Pankhurst was growing more reactionary, and when she was arrested for throwing stones at Downing St in the same year, argued her crime was nothing compared to the crime of the miners, who were paralysing the country. The climate spurred her younger daughter Sylvia to separate from her and form the group that would become the Workers’ Socialist Federation, the most ardent supporters of the Bolsheviks in Britain.

The great tragedy of the period is, of course, that the Unrest did nothing to derail the world’s slide to war. The leaders of the BSP were already nationalist, but after 1914 even militants like Grayson and Tillett were standing squarely behind the ‘war effort’. The movement found itself still too disorganised to do anything to prevent the war. Propaganda had not gone much beyond industrial questions, so it was perfectly possible for many to be militant trade unionists and ardent nationalists at the same time. The lesson here is in the value of raising wider political questions inside the trade union movement.

The period saw a proliferation of different ideas coming about at the same time, from different quarters of the socialist movement. Here I have just touched on it. It is exciting, as a socialist, to look back on such militant days, when all parts of the movement were fighting side-by-side, and in dialogue with one another.

The Unrest has been written out of history because it shows up the old lie, ‘People in Britain just aren’t that radical, and we never have been.’ This was a time when working people took to organising themselves, at a pace at which most of Britain’s sleepy socialists found it difficult to catch up. They were waiting for the workers to wake up one day and decide that socialism was a good idea. Instead, they got an explosion of industrial militancy and didn’t know what to do about it. It was a wasted opportunity, but still an inspiring time.