Springing into action

A hot summer beckons but perhaps not on the political front? Mark Perryman from Philosophy Football finds some books sure to cheer up our inner pessimist.

UKiP riding high in the opinion polls, what could be a more dismal sign of the state of opposition outside the Westminster bubble. Whether or not Farage’s party of English poujadists manage to top the Euro Election poll in May and make a further dent in the 3-party domination of the local government elections on the same day too the dragging of political debate rightwards remains UKiP’s biggest achievement. There remains few signs of any similar success from the outside Left.

Twentieth Century CommunismJohn Harris has recently argued that the Left is trapped in the past. Perhaps, but part of the reason for that is that the Left’s past is a tad more interesting than its present. Backward-looking? Yes, sometimes. But a modernisation founded on an ahistorical politics fails to account for the pluses and minuses of history and has proved itself wilfully incapable of grappling with today’s fast-changing world. As an alternative take a look at the approach adopted by the hugely impressive Oxford Handbook of The History of Communism which is as comprehensive as it is challenging. Rich in scope while sharply analytical in its understanding of one of the twentieth century’s grand narratives. So grand in fact that it sparked a counter all of its own making ‘anti-communism’ which is carefully dissected by the latest, now twice-yearly, volume of one of the most startlingly original political history initiatives of recent years, the journal Twentieth Century Communism. French revolutionry of the ‘68 vintage, Daniel Bensaid’s excellent memoir An Impatient Life provides more than enough passion for even the most hardened cynic. Of course history never stands still, to treat it as such absolutely locks the Left into past, not present. Paul Kelemen’s account The British Left and Zionism carefully chronicles a changing position on Israel and Palestine that he describes as a ‘history of a divorce’. The altered circumstances, loyalties and issues given the kind of weight of understanding they deserve yet are all too rarely afforded. On the other hand history needs endless and unchanging principle sometimes too, a point well-made by the welcome appearance of contemporary writings against the First World War, Not Our War.

The new and updated edition of Seumas Milne’s unrivalled account of the 1984-85 Miners Strke, The Enemy Within provides an example of how the past continues to haunt the present. Three decades on the legacy of the defeat of the miners continues to shape contemporary trade union militancy. Richard Seymour is a writer unafraid to confront the contours of such a defeat while at the same time providing the kind of deep-rooted analysis to map out an alternative. His latest book Against Austerity is no counsel of despair, rather a hard-headed call to action of a new type. Benjamin Kunkel’s Utopia or Bust is a handy, and exceptionally well-written, survey of Left wing analysis of the financial crisis including David Harvey, Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Zizek. Kunkel though doesn’t provide a commentary simply to inform though, but to enlighten too, a brilliant read. A similar dose of well-reasoned yet strikingly original thinking is provided by the regular instalments of the After Neoliberalism Manifesto available free online. The latest contribution States of Imagination takes rethinking public sector provision in a radically modernising direction entirely different to the Blair/Brown and Cameron/Clegg model of conservative modernisation. Read it to appreciate the art of the possible and the sheer misery of the 1997-2010 moment of lost opportunity. An unashamedly theoretical account of neoliberal culture is provided by a special edition of the journal New Formations much of which is available free to download. For now though the political terrain in England at least remains dominated by the challenge from the Right, namely UKIP. The best single effort to understand this ghastly yet incredibly important phenomenon has been provided by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin in their sublime book Revolt on the Right. Mixing empirical analysis of long-term voting trends with a well-argued case for the need to both understand and confront the roots of right-wing populism this is an absolutely essential read for summer 2014.

Darcus Howe - a political biographyAt the core of UKIP’s message, and the same is broadly true of right-wing populism across Europe, is a discourse of race and nation. The former is a subject the Left likes to think it has a decent set of ideas to construct an analysis of rooted in anti-racist values. However just how far the British Left needs to travel in order to reshape its politics via the Black British experience is revealed by the superb Darcus Howe : A Political Biography which via personal testimony revisits a history of migration, self-organisaton and resistance which exists largely outside of traditional Left politics. Arun Kundnani’s The Muslims are Coming! links together the experience of Islamophobia, the framing of extremism/fundamentalism and the ongoing global impact of the west’s so-called ‘War on Terror’. Here the left is grappling with subjects it is more at ease with understanding, though the depth to which it is transformed via that process remains in question. An insight into what that transformation might look like is provided by John Hutnyk’s Pantomime Terror which imaginatively records how popular culture has been affected by a post 9/11 world and on occasion has offered signs of resisting the reactionary, racist, consequences of that process. The urgent necessity for this kind of engagement is established brilliantly by Andrew Hussey’s new book The French Intifada. UKIP are not of the same make-up as France’s Front National, populists not fascists, yet they feed off the same fear and loathing that French politics is immersed in and this book explains why. Superb writing on the complexities of race, religion and immigration that situates this in the legacies of Empire and colonialism.

A very English heroIn all likelihood any kind of UKIP breakthrough to top the May Euro poll will be restricted to England. Their support in Wales is negligible, and in Scotland close to non-existent . They are fundamentally an English party, defining their independence, or more accurately their nationalism as against Europe and against immigration. To develop both an understanding of UKIP’s success and any kind of meaningful opposition requires an engagement with the meaning of Englishness. For some on the Left this remains unacceptable, yet this is to ignore our own history. As Wade Matthews records in his magnificent The New Left, National Identity and the Break-up of Britain. This is the kind of historiography the modern Left needs, connecting us to past yet hugely relevant debates dominated by such figures as E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall, the kind of towering influences we so lack, and miss today. The 1956 New Left generation was formed politically in large measure by the anti-fascist Popular Front experience of World War Two. A period depicted in Peter Conradi’s A Very English Hero locating the heroism and idealism of the war hero Frank Thompson in and amongst the commitment, anti-fascism, that took him to the front line.This is a very different version of the Anglo-martial tradition we are more used to. The potential for such a rupture with this and other components of a more traditional Englishness is explored in Michael Kenny’s wide-ranging book The Politics of English Nationhood. A welcome and timely effort to think about what England after the Union might end up looking like.

But of course any such break-up won’t be decided by the English, forced for once on this island of ours to adopt the role of also-rans, but by the Scots. It isn’t to decry the central importance of September’s independence referendum to claim that in some senses the result hardly matters. Instead we need to recognise that the process towards separation, involving Wales too and more problematically the north of Ireland, has already begun and to all intents and purposes is irreversible independence for Scotland or not. What the referendum campaign has stirred up north of the border is a flowering of political debate that the English Left cannot even begin to imagine how to match. Gerry Hassan has established himself as without doubt the most imaginative and incisive commentator on all things Scottish, nationalist and progressive. Yet south of the border he, and others like him are fortunate to get even a cursory hearing. Gerry’s new book Caledonian Dreaming combines both a rare realism about the reality of the mythology of Scottish social-democracy in both its Labourist and sometimes Nationalist forms, with a vision for how the best of those traditions can be shaped by the identities, social movements and cultures that post-date them in the new Scotland. James Foley and Pete Rennard provide a more polemical broadside in their book simply titled Yes. With passionate argument they capture the energy of the coalitions around the independence cause which stretch way beyond simply the SNP. This is radical politics at its best, a testament to the potential for ideas and actions rooted in movements for change.

Fulfilling such potential depends in large part on a remaking the political so that ideas and practice are fused with cultural expressions and forms. A good example of this in the Independence debate is the work of the artists under the banner of The National Collective. Three recent books in their different ways bear witness to the scope of such an ambition more widely. JP Bean’s Bohemians by Paul Buhle and David Berger is presented in a bright and accessible format, a graphic history, absolutely right for the subject-matter. Jazz and dance, salons and clubs, utopianism and multiculturalism, all were central to this cultural rebellion. A very modern interpretation of the political-cultural fusion is provided is provided by Stitched Up by Tansy Hoskins. The book’s sub-title ‘ The Anti-Capitalist Book Of Fashion’ does its job to intrigue and tempt. ‘Of’ , not ‘against’ this is a book that embraces the joy, for men and women, of dressing up while deconstructing the industry, working conditions and rip-off merchants behind such pleasures. An incredibly original read about a subject the Left should have plenty to say but to date has scarcely seemed bothered with once it had made its mind up to be on the side of the simplicities of the ‘against’ and not so much of the contradictions located in the ‘of’.

Hitler's GirlsBut remaking the political requires not just a redefinition of politics but a new imaginary too, one that can inspire hope in what the future might look like as much as reveal what is wrong with the present. Such an imaginary must surely draw on the resources provided by fiction, the novel. Not a place the Left is all that used to looking to for ideas. Jonathan Lethem’s best-selling Dissident Gardens is about fighting for what is right, losing yet keeping on keeping on, the emotions and experiences that shape such commitment in the harshest of conditions, McCarthyite-era America. A tale of loss but also about the romantic ideal that making a difference is not only essential but feasible. Hitler’s Girls by Emma Tennant and Hilary Bailey is perhaps a more extreme example of how the novel can challenge and extend, our political imagination. A complicated plot moulded by Nazi Germany, the aftermath of WW2, far right conspiracies and modern-day hate criminals. A tale that few would fail to enjoy with intrigue in abundance.

In the search for the potential to remake the political there is no better starting point than the modern women’s liberation movement, sometimes now referred to as fifth wave feminism. International in complexion, internationalist by purpose, there are few rivals to the ionic Pussy Riot for their ability to shake up the humdrum with wit, imagination and intent. Masha Gessen’s Words Will Break Cement retells their story, mostly in their own words in a manner clearly intended to reproduce by any media necessary . Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates may seem a tad less spectacular yet is simply testament to the sheer diversity of both feminism’s content and action. Based on the trail-blazing Everyday Sexism blog she also initiated Laura’s book reveals in the most painful detail the bloody-minded endurance of a sexism that is one tiny step away from misogyny, harassment , physical intimidation, sexual violence and worse. A book, and a blog, that isn’t read to weep but to rally towards change. The response already has proven quite definitively, it works.

The book of the quarter? A book that reinforces the enduring vitality of feminism, from whatever ‘wave’, while connecting to the vital need for hope in an era of popular despair and widespread disaffection. Beatrix Campbell’s pocket manifesto End of Equality is a well-aimed polemic against a neoliberal order that is founded on patriarchy, wilfully allows sexual discrimination to flourish and cannot be understood, resisted or changed without a central commitment to gender equality . A book to shake up established thinking right, left or in-between. Nothing short of a new revolution, what a way to welcome the start of summer.

Note No links in this book review are to Amazon. If you can avoid buying from the tax-dodgers, please do so.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’, aka Philosophy Football.

By the day I grow more implacably opposed to Scottish independence

The event to mark the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster at Anfield this week was as moving and inspiring as it gets. The sight of those remarkable people gathered together to mark one of the defining events of my lifetime reminded me that for working people unity really is strength, that solidarity is the key to victory against seemingly insurmountable odds, and that regardless of race, creed, religion or nationality, the things that unite working people are much greater than anything that could possibly divide them.

And yet, as a Scot, I am being invited by an increasingly bitter and intolerant Yes campaign for Scottish independence to cast a vote on September 18 that will separate working people in Scotland from working people in Liverpool and every other town and city in England and Wales, and instead express an affinity with any number of rich and affluent Scots on the basis of nothing more than the fact I happen to live in the same part of this island as them.

How can this possibly be described as progressive? And how is it that so many socialists and progressives in Scotland have swung in behind a nationalist project that offers constitutional change but not the social and economic change required to transform the lives of working class people not only in Scotland but throughout Britain?

Fighting the Tories by vacating the field of battle, abandoning other working class people to their fate in the process, can be called many things but socialism is not one of them. Just as a border cannot keep out bad weather, it won’t keep out neoliberalism, and there is nothing progressive in pretending that the SNP – with its desire for an independent Scotland to reduce corporation tax to 12.5 percent, retain an unelected monarch as head of state, and join the nuclear-armed military alliance of NATO – offers anything better than the status quo.

Many on the left of the Yes campaign assert that the upcoming referendum isn’t about Alex Salmond or the SNP. But this is about as absurd as claiming that a tree is a lamppost in disguise. Scottish independence and the SNP constitute two sides of the same coin in the hearts and minds of the overwhelming majority of the Scottish people. It is the SNP’s vision that is dominating this campaign and whether socialists in the Yes campaign care to admit it or not, people in September will be casting a vote either for or against the vision set out in the SNP’s White Paper, launched at the tail end of last year.

As for the Better Together campaign, being led by Alistair Darling, this does not speak for me or for any Scot who knows better. The sight of Tories, Lib Dems, and New Labour dinosaurs preaching to the Scottish people as to why they should vote No is both unedifying and political manna from heaven for the SNP. Indeed, with every utterance these people merely increase support for a Yes campaign which by now has clearly lost the economic and political argument in favour of independence, and is now focused on accentuating a regressive emotional argument involving the painting of Scotland as victims of perfidious Albion.

To the simple minded it is compelling stuff, providing an opportunity to brush up on Mel Gibson’s speech to the troops in Braveheart. However to the rest of us it is transparent and reductive nonsense. The Scots are not and never have been colonised by England or the English. On the contrary, Scots played a key role when it came to forging a British Empire which stands to this day as a badge of shame to any right thinking citizen of this country.

No, I just won’t have it. Nor will I have being told that progress for ordinary people in Scotland means turning the people of Liverpool, Newcastle, Manchester and London into the citizens of a foreign country on September 18.

While the emergence of nationalism as a viable alternative to the status quo may be rooted in understandable despair over one of the most vicious Tory governments we’ve ever seen, my hope for the people of Scotland and throughout this island remains with the kind of solidarity and unity we witnessed being displayed in Liverpool this week and over the past 25 years..

Ultimately, working people are only as strong as they are united, and as weak as they are divided.

A Tribute to Tony Benn (meeting in Bristol)

tony-bennThanks to South West TUC for organizing what looks like a fantastic event in tribute to Tony Benn

Date and time of event: Thu 1 May 2014 – 19:00 to 21:00
Venue and town/city: The New Room – John Wesley’s Chapel, 36 The Horsefair, Bristol, BS1 3JE
Costs: free, but pre-registration is essential

Tony Benn was the Labour MP for Bristol South East for over thirty years. During his time in the city he fought for his right to stay in Parliament, he championed many progressive causes and opposed racism. He ensured that Concorde was built in Bristol and helped many individuals with their issues.

He was a towering figure of British politics and inspired thousands through his speeches and books.

The Tribute to Tony Benn will hear people talk about Tony Benn’s legacy in Bristol including Kerry McCarthy MP; Dawn Primarolo MP and Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons; Paul Stephenson, leader of the Bristol bus boycott; David Worthington, New Rooms; Harold Clarke, Methodist (tbc); Lew Gray, ex Aerospace Convenor; Nigel Costley, South West TUC Regional Secretary; Helen Holland, Labour Leader on Bristol City Council; Roger James, Oxfam and CND (tbc) and others plus a short film (tbc); Miles Chambers, poet and the Red Notes choir

Battle with Balfour Beatty over union derecognition.

From the Western Daily Press:

Roadworkers given the massive task of filling thousands of potholes in Wiltshire, the West’s largest local authority, are considering industrial action after council chiefs sold their jobs to a new firm that refuses to recognise their trade union.

Some 300 Wiltshire Council highways and maintenance workers were told last year that they were now employed by Balfour Beatty as part of a £50 million deal which sees the large plc in charge of all ground works, parks and roads.

After two harsh winters, council chiefs decided to spend another £100 million fixing potholes on the county’s roads after they were labelled “a disgrace” by residents, and claims for damage to cars soared.

But the workers given the job of repairing them are said to be furious after Balfour Beatty told them they no longer recognised their union – and would organise their own “staff associations and employee forums” to handle agreements over pay rises.

The three unions who represent the new Balfour Beatty employees at Wiltshire Council are Unison, the GMB and Unite – and all three have now signed a joint letter expressing their fury at the move, while opposition Liberal Democrat councillors have branded the situation “outrageous”.

The ruling Conservative group at Wiltshire Council said that the staff were transferred with their rights to have the same pay and conditions intact, but union recognition was not part of the deal.

“This is simply outrageous,” said Lib Dem leader Jon Hubbard. “Staff should have the right to choose whether they are represented by a union and not have the choice taken away from them at the whim of contractors.

“The rights of staff have been ripped up and thrown in the bin.

“The Conservative administration’s policy of privatising out council services has meant that the rights of council staff are being stripped away.

“This will severely damage the support staff get when it comes to negotiations over pay and conditions,” he added.

Carole Vallelly, the GMB rep for Wiltshire, said: “This means that our members have lost all their collective bargaining as well as pay and condition negotiations support.

“In theory, this allows Balfour Beatty to decide not to give pay rises out with no form of redress.”

Balfour Beatty Living Places has stated its intention not to recognise unions for collective bargaining on council contracts, and has I understand derecognised unions not just in Wiltshire, but also in Southampton.

Wiltshire branch of GMB has a motion to this year’s Congress deploring Balfour Beatty’s anti-union stance, and calling for a national campaign against Balfour Beatty Living Places getting future public services contracts, until they change their policy.

The role of PCS members in the bullying of benefit claimants

Members of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) are engaged in the widespread bullying and intimidation of benefit claimants in Jobcentres up and down the country. The evidence can no longer be denied and the union’s leadership must now take steps to educate its members that solidarity is more than just a word on a leaflet during a PCS pay dispute, or else face the accusation of collaborating with the government’s vicious assault on the most economically vulnerable in society under the rubric of austerity.

The upsurge in the number of claimants having their benefits sanctioned for increasingly minor infractions correlates to the upsurge in the demand for the services of the nation’s food banks. This shocking revelation was contained in a report by MPs in January, the result of an investigation by the Work and Pensions Select Committee, which called for an independent review into the rules for sanctioning claimants to ensure that the rules are being applied “fairly and appropriately”.

Among its findings the report stated:

Evidence suggests that JCP staff have referred many claimants for a sanction inappropriately or in circumstances in which common sense would dictate that discretion should have been applied.

The report continued:

Some witnesses were concerned that financial hardship caused by sanctioning was a significant factor in a recent rise in referrals to food aid. The report recommends that DWP take urgent steps to monitor the extent of financial hardship caused by sanctions.

The majority of Jobcentre staff are members of the 270,000 strong PCS, the sixth largest trade union in the country, which represents thousands of Britain’s civil servants and public sector workers. The PCS has been a strong critic of the coalition’s austerity policies, making the case for an investment led recovery from recession and calling for mass opposition to spending cuts that have ravaged the public sector and been accompanied by a concerted campaign of demonisation of the unemployed and economically vulnerable that is unparalleled in its viciousness. This only makes the role some of its members are playing in intensifying the hardship faced by the unemployed and people on out of work benefits even more deplorable.

It is unconscionable that any trade union would allow its members to engage in the wilful and systematic sanctioning of benefit claimants without offering any meaningful resistance. It flies in the face of the very principle of social solidarity that is the cornerstone of a movement founded on the understanding that the interests of working people – employed and unemployed – are intrinsically the same.

The human despair not to mention humiliation being inflicted on people in the nation’s Jobcentres is evidence that the Tory campaign of dividing working people section by section has borne fruit. It has reached the point where the oppressive atmosphere found in your average Jobcentre is on a par with the oppressive atmosphere associated with a district or sheriff court. Jobseekers are not criminals and those sanctioning them so readily are not parole officers, yet you could be easily mistaken in thinking they are after spending just a few minutes in a Jobcentre anywhere in the country.

Enough is enough.

This culture of bullying, harassment, and intimidation against the unemployed must be confronted by the leadership of the leadership of the PCS as a matter of urgency. By no means are all PCS members working in Jobcentres guilty of this shameful practice – indeed many are low paid workers reliant on various benefits to survive themselves – but enough are involved in the practice to leave no doubt that we are talking about an institutional problem rather than the actions of a few rotten apples.

Many of those being sanctioned are being trapped due to mental health issues or language issues making them more vulnerable to violating the plethora of rules regarding the obligations they must fulfil when it comes to searching for work. Many are being sanctioned for turning up five minutes late to a scheduled appointment, regardless of the reason why. In some cases suicide has been the result.

You would hope that the leadership of the PCS would at least acknowledge the despair their members are inflicting on the most economically vulnerable people in society. You’d be wrong. In an article which appeared on the PCS website back in February, addressing the volume of criticism being levelled at the DWP over sanctioning, the union denied culpability in the process. On the contrary they assert in the article:

PCS believes our members do the best job they can in very difficult circumstances. Rather than face criticism, this work should be recognised and valued by management and they should start by ensuring a proper pay increase for DWP staff in 2014.

Any trade union member who allows him or herself to be used as an instrument to attack the poor and the unemployed is deserving of contempt. And any trade union leadership that fails to act to prevent it happening is reactionary.

Public Meeting on Ukrainian crisis

What's behind the crisis?

6.30pm, Tuesday 15 April
The Wesley Hotel, Euston Street, London NW1 2EZ

The crisis in the Ukraine continues, with tensions between the big powers growing day by day. There are several factors militating against war in the immediate future, including Russia’s nuclear arsenal and trade links with EU countries. But as the establishment think-tank Stratfor has argued, it would be naive to rule out a conflagration.

Already NATO air drills are taking place over the Baltics, and the UK and US are sending extra jets to patrol the skies. Poland has requested 10,000 NATO troops to be stationed on its territory and MPs in Kiev have voted to hold joint military exercises with NATO. In the medium to long term, NATO is looking at establishing permanent military bases in Ukraine.

Swindon Borough Council adopts tough anti-blacklisting stance

Moved and seconded by Labour, passed with Conservative support last Thursday:

Swindon Motion – Opposition to Companies that Operate Blacklists

“That Swindon Council deplores the illegal practice of blacklisting and requests that the Lead Cabinet Member and Officers seek a way to ensure that any company tendering for construction and civil engineering contracts to be awarded by Swindon Council will be asked to provide information that they have not conducted any “grave misconduct” by way of blacklisting. This will include questions in relation to:
1. Membership of the Consulting Association.
2. Employment of individuals who were named contacts for The Consulting Association.”

This follows the successful motion passed through Wiltshire:

‘That Wiltshire Council deplores the illegal practice of “Blacklisting” within the Construction& Civil Engineering Industry and will ensure that any company tendering for Construction & Civil Engineering contracts by Wiltshire Council will be asked to provide information that they have not conducted any “grave misconduct” by way of blacklisting. This will include questions in relation to;

1. Membership of The Consulting Association.
2. Employment of individuals who were named contacts for The Consulting Association.
3. Identifying the steps taken to remedy blacklisting for affected workers.
4. Identifying the steps taken to ensure blacklisting will not happen again’.

Chippenham radical history

jeremy corbyn in chippenham

Jeremy Corbyn MP, originally from Chippenham, pictured on Saturday with Andy Newman and Pete Baldrey, the Labour parliamentary candidates for Chippenham and North Wiltshire constituencies.

Saturday’s radical history event in Chippenham, organised by the White Horse Trades Council was a spectacular success, with around 100 people attending to hear talks about Dame Florence Hancock, (the leader of the 1913 Nestles strike in the town, and later a woman organiser for the Workers Union, and later the TGWU, before becomming president of the TUC), about Angela Gradwell-Tuckett, (an indefatigable Communist, who was also one of the country’ first women solicitors, a folk singer and concertina player, and who played hockey for England, famously refusing to give a Nazi salute in 1935 at an international match in Berlin, and who later settled in Swindon).

Jeremy Corbyn spoke powerfully about his parents and childhood in Chippenham, and about his lifelong desire for social justice. Other talks were given on the role of hangings and the gibbet in Hanoverian Wiltshire, and about West Country rebels.

The speakers alongside Jeremy Corbyn were Melissa Bartlett from Chippenham Museum, Rosie MacGregor, chair of the South West TUC, Nigel Costley, Regional Secretary of the SW TUC, and Steve Poole from the University of the West of England. The mixture of professional academicians, trade unionists, politicians, and local historians proved as potent as the earlier event organised in Bradford on Avon in 2011; not only drawing in diverse audiences, but also fusing contemporary political debate with a sense of history and geographical content.

The organisers will be arranging a third event probably in Melksham in the future.