Friday, 7 February 2014

LABOUR'S UNION PROBLEM

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 7 February 2014

Labour’s relationship with the trade unions has always been a problem.

The formalities of it date from 1918, when Labour was still, essentially, a means of getting working-class men (no girls allowed) elected to parliament – and when there was a vast number of trade unions, most of them either small or very decentralised. The party then drew up a new constitution (which also included the vague promise of socialism in Clause Four) giving the unions the defining role in the new structure at every level except electing the parliamentary leader.

The deal started to look creaky within a few years, as Ernest Bevin created a giant general union by amalgamation, the Transport and General Workers, in which power was concentrated at the top – and then other big unions, representing miners, engineers, railwaymen, local authority workers, more or less successfully emulated the T and G’s transformation into national centrally managed bureaucracies.

Union barons became fixtures in Labour politics, controlling local parties through their surrogates in much of the country and wielding decisive influence over the party conference – and between conferences they ran the National Executive Committee.

There’s no romantic narrative of class struggle. From the late 20s until the 50s, the unions were mostly bastions of the Labour right; in the 60s and 70s the left took control of many unions. But until the 80s the unions’ position in the party was taken as read by just about everyone – members, the party leadership and most MPs – as a fact of life. Yes, the block vote was ridiculous, yes the union bureaucrats acted as if they owned the show … but the unions had no role in leadership elections and they weren’t (generally) a co-ordinated bloc on policy. Anyone could get around them when necessary (well, most of the time).

Two things changed that happy world: Labour’s internal constitutional reforms introduced in 1980, which created an “electoral college” for leadership elections in which unions had a third of the vote; and the collapse of trade union membership as Tory Britain deindustrialised.

Changing the leadership election system was a left cause, the key victory of the idiotic left insurgency led by Tony Benn after Labour’s 1979 general election defeat to Margaret Thatcher. But it was a very dodgy business. Until 1993, actual members of trade unions had no right to vote unless their union boss decided otherwise. Fat blokes in pubs ruled supreme. It was a blessed relief for Labour that Neil Kinnock and John Smith were elected by massive margins under the system – and that the challenge to Kinnock from Benn in 1988 was so completely, utterly and totally inept in every respect.

Much more important, however, was the impact of the collapse of union membership during the 1980s and 1990s. There were 13 million trade union members in 1979: now the figure is half that. The main reason was simple: the closure of production in mining, steel, engineering; technological change in office work, printing, film and TV. And the way unions responded was simple too: merge.

Of the 6.5 million union members today, roughly half are members of three: Unite, with 1.4 million; Unison, with 1.3 million; and the GMB, with 600,000. Add the shop workers, the teachers, the civil servants, postal workers and construction workers and you’re over 5 million.

That makes Labour's federal structure particularly difficult to sustain. I’m all in favour of the old Wobbly slogan of one big union – but amalgamations create a problem for a national social democratic party with affiliates. Federalism works only with a plurality of engaged organisations. There’s a point where an affiliate gets too big.

Unless Labour is prepared to say that Unite and Unison should dictate policy it has to change its rules. But that’s only part of the issue.

In general, given a choice, you don’t put idiots in charge of anything – but with very few exceptions, Britain’s unions do just that. They are appallingly run. Their leaders are the worst we’ve seen for years and their research departments largely inept. When was the last time a trade union report made a headline? With very few exceptions, they’ve done bugger-all organising for years and years.

Useless unions deserve no role in Labour politics. And we’ve got spectacularly useless unions right now. Ed Miliband is going for change where it’s least necessary. His experience in the 2010 leadership election obviously matters to him, but he would have won anyway. And under his proposed changes there is nothing to stop Unite or Unison sending out voting recommendations to their members...

He should have got rid of the block vote at party conference.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

THEY CAN'T FLOG THE WIRE FROM THE RAILWAY

Tribune column, 10 January 2014

Scene in the local off-license, Ipswich, New Year’s Eve:
Old boy from Suffolk (white, about 75, slightly tipsy) Well, they’re coming over here...
Shopkeeper (brown, mid-50s, Punjabi) Yeah, they don’t wanna work, they just wanna nick stuff.
Old boy But it’s better now the scrap’s not cash. They can’t get the wire off the railway and flog it. Now they’ll just sign on.
Shopkeeper They’ve got to stop them coming. It’s out of control. 
The young man behind me in the queue coughs politely and I instinctively turn my head to him. He grins. I grin back. I don’t know him, but he must be Polish – who else would buy Polish beer?

+++

The past few months have seen the popular press whipping up panic about the supposed threat posed by Bulgarians and Romanians coming over to Britain now they’re properly part of the European Union’s single market for labour. They’re taking our jobs and houses and signing on for lavish benefits, we’re told – and it looks as if the nasty anti-foreigner mood will lead to a triumph for the saloon-bar rightists of UKIP in the European Parliament elections in spring.

Well, they’ve done it before – UKIP came second in share of the vote in the 2009 Euro-elections. But it doesn’t necessarily mean too much for the next general election. In 2010, UKIP slumped to 3 per cent of the vote and failed to win a single seat in the House of Commons. And I don’t think xenophobia is Labour’s main problem right now. The party is undoubtedly on the defensive on immigration and welfare scroungers and it still hasn’t killed the story that it was Labour profligacy that got us into this mess in the first place. But its biggest difficulty is the prospect of a house-price boom engineered by the coalition to make mortgage-holders feel good just in time for the 2015 general election.

+++

Of course, it’s not out of Labour’s control. Britain has a housing crisis: there are too few homes to satisfy demand, and prices and rents are ludicrously inflated. But inflated house prices and rents are very advantageous to a sizable minority of voters.

Most people who have bought a home in the past 50 years – whether a straight mortgage purchase or a subsidised council sale – have done very nicely, thank you very much. Particularly in London, if you were in on the act, you’ve got an asset that has appreciated by the week (for the most part) and in any case can be rented out for more than the repayments on what you borrowed.

There’s now a giant group of home-owners whose sense of well-being is based on what the estate agent says their home is worth (and who borrow to consume in line with that) and another, smaller, group of landlords living off the money they charge to other people to live in their properties, with rents inflated by shortage. The lovely Fergus and Judith Wilson, the buy-to-let millionaires of Kent, made the headlines again last weekend, this time not for charging extortionate fees to tenants but for deciding they’d no longer rent to anyone on benefits.

OK, spiralling property prices and rents are bad for everyone who is excluded from the bonanza, and they redistribute wealth and income in a radically unequal way – with a massive state subsidy for landlords in the form of housing benefit, even if the Wilsons reckon it’s no longer as bankable as it used to be. But housing is very dangerous territory for Labour. The party can win support by attacking rack-renting landlords and demanding the construction of affordable housing – but it also needs the votes of owner-occupiers whose interest is in the maintenance of the value of their properties. I’m sorry to start 2014 on a pessimistic note, but I’ve a horrible feeling that, come 2015, those owner-occupiers will prefer to vote Tory – and give David Cameron a victory that his party’s current poll ratings suggest is very unlikely.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

THE PROBLEM WITH THE CO-OP

Tribune column, 29 November 2013

Maybe I’m a naïve libertarian, but I can’t be that bothered whether the Reverend Paul Flowers, the Methodist minister who was chairman of the Co-operative Bank, took illegal drugs and had sex with rent boys.

Not that I think that the Mail on Sunday should have been prevented from exposing him: it’s not good for people who run banks to be off their heads on crystal meth, just as it’s not good for airline pilots to be drunk, and religious leaders who preach against prostitution and hire prostitutes on the side are fair game. Even if it turns out that the Rev Flowers got wasted only at weekends and never met rent boys on Sundays, there is a public interest in the intrusion into his privacy that cannot be reduced to prurience, even before his links with Labour Party high-ups come into the equation …

But that’s as may be: the Rev Flowers’ louche lifestyle isn’t what really matters in the extraordinary story of the Co-op Bank. He wasn’t at the helm when it took the fateful decision to take over the Britannia Building Society in 2009, and he was by no means solely responsible for the bank’s subsequent failed attempt to acquire 631 branches of Lloyds Bank. Although he was obviously not up to the job of chairing the bank’s board – his display of ignorance of its assets in front of the Commons Treasury select committee was breathtaking – he should not be made a scapegoat for systemic failures of which his appointment was a symptom.

And, boy, were there a few of those. The most important factor in the story is the hubris that infected the upper echelons of the Co-operative Group, which owns the Co-op Bank, in the mid-noughties. Thirty years ago, what you might call the official Co-op – the consumer organisation with shops, insurance, banking and funeral services rather than the myriad co-operatively run businesses in industry and agriculture – appeared to be in terminal decline. It was fragmented into regional societies, split between wholesale and retail operations, ludicrously bureaucratic at every level. Its shops were losing trade to the big supermarkets. Its accountability to its members was minimal, its business acumen non-existent.

But in the course of the late 1980s and 1990s, the Co-op got its act together, or so it seemed. Most of the regional societies merged into a national body, and in 2000 the retail and wholesale sides of the national Co-op became one. The Co-op Bank began a successful campaign emphasising that its principles were different from its competitors’. Managers with serious experience were given key positions in the retail and wholesale operations. By the mid-noughties, the Co-op seemed to be in good shape.

Then, however, its bosses got hungry for growth – and that’s where it all started to go horribly wrong. The Co-op expanded aggressively, encouraged by the then Labour government. As well as the Co-op Bank taking over the Britannia Building Society, the group swallowed the ailing supermarket chain Somerfield. Concerns that it was moving too fast and carelessly were given short shrift both by politicians of all parties and by the markets – and in 2010 the Co-op Bank was given the go-ahead by the Tory chancellor, George Osborne, to take over branches of Lloyds, temporarily nationalised to prevent its collapse, to enhance banking competition on the high street.

I’ll come clean: I thought that the Co-op becoming a serious contender in consumer banking and growing as a supermarket was rather a good idea. But I wasn’t in any position to know whether it had the necessary means or whether its actual or potential acquisitions were turkeys. The members of the Co-op Bank board were. They all screwed up.

So is this the end of mutualism, proof that complex stuff like banking has to be left to the experts with no input from the oiks? You’d think so from most of the press, but I demur. The supposed experts got it as wrong in 2007-08 as the amateurs. And the problem with the Co-op is not that it’s too democratic, but that it’s not democratic enough. As in every other large mutual, supposedly member-controlled, organisation, including the trade unions, hardly anyone votes. And one reason for this is that elections are depoliticised: candidates for office never declare their intentions, affiliations or beliefs beyond motherhood and apple pie. The Co-op, like most of the trade unions, is dominated by a Tammany Hall culture of stitch-up and buggin’s turn in which knowing the right people and being part of the right set matters more than competence, integrity or principles.

It’s an old story: the pioneering political sociologist Robert Michels identified the “iron law of oligarchy” more than a century ago in his seminal work, Political Parties. How to break that iron law remains the biggest quandary of radical politics.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

LOU REED WAS MY TEENAGE HERO

Tribune column, 1 November 2013

There’s one song every band can play. If the words don’t ring a bell:
Standing on a corner
Suitcase in my hand
the riff will do it for you. Da – da, da, di, da – da, da, di,da.

OK, maybe not. It’s “Sweet Jane”, and it was not a hit for the New York band that ripped off the lick and recorded it in 1970, the Velvet Underground. I don’t think it charted anywhere until Mott the Hoople, a cheery bunch of British rockers fronted by the great Ian Hunter, covered it in 1972 and released it as a single in Canada and Portugal.

The Velvets weren’t exactly obscure. Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker were the house band at Andy Warhol’s studio-cum-party, The Factory. Reed and Cale had by 1970 established serious reputations as artistes (though Cale had left the band and Reed was on the way out) even if no one bought their records.

But it was only after the Velvet Underground went under, after the release of Loaded, their most commercially-oriented LP, that people got Lou Reed. He was turned into an international superstar by David Bowie, then at the height of his fame, who produced Reed’s second solo album, Transformer, which became a global hit in 1972. After that Reed had a mixed career. There are plenty of his records that are very good – Berlin, Rock and Roll Animal, Coney Island Baby and Street Hassle stand out, and the Take No Prisoners live set from 1978 is stunning, one of the funniest recordings made by a rock musician. I’m a fan of New York and of Songs for Drella, the album Reed and Cale put out as a tribute to Warhol in 1990. I’ve even had Metal Machine Music moments. But nothing ever matched Transformer or the Velvets’ recordings.

Now he’s dead, and I’m sad. It might seem odd, but Lou mattered a lot to kids in Suffolk in the 1970s. He was a subversive suburban geek, and there weren’t too many of them around at the time. We bought sunglasses to try to look like him, We did his songs, badly but enthusiastically, in punk bands. I’d say he was more of an inspiration than Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones.

“Give me an issue and I’ll give you a tissue – and wipe my ass with it.” he told his liberal New York audience in 1978. They loved it. In later life he ditched some of the cynicism and came out for the Democrats in a rather curmudgeonly manner, but I’m not really sure it was an improvement.

+++

Russell Brand is a very different beast. The controversial comedian is in the spotlight after editing an issue of the New Statesman and appearing on Newsnight.

His not-so-unique selling point is that he is an anarchist. He thinks that Britain needs a revolution and needs it now – and his plea for revolution has gone viral.

I have some sympathy. Thirty-five years ago, when I wanted to be Lou Reed, well, I used to be an anarchist just like Russell Brand, though I wasn’t famous. I went on every demo against the Labour government in the late 1970s and lots against the Tories after that. I didn’t vote. I squatted.

Revolution was a lot of fun – certainly more fun than straight politics. I met some of my best friends through the anarchist scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s – and some of the ideas we were into back then have stood the test of time pretty well. Anarchism inoculated me for life against the authoritarianism of the Leninist left, and I’ve always held its do-it-yourself ethic in high regard. I also retain my disdain for the timidity of centre-left politicians whose actions are dictated by the findings of opinion polls and focus groups.

But anarchism also has severe limitations – not least that there aren’t many anarchists, which makes the dream of revolution just a little unrealistic. Even if there were lots more anarchists and revolution were a realistic goal, however, I’m not sure I’d actually want one these days. Revolutions are usually nasty, bloody things that lead to different wrong people being in charge. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I’d be quite happy settling for a robust universal welfare state and lots more spending on public transport, social housing, libraries and the arts. Which is what Labour used to offer, though now I’m not so sure.

Friday, 18 October 2013

LABOUR TRAITORS?

Tribune, 18 October 2013

The Daily Mail’s assertion that Ralph Miliband, father of Labour leader Ed, was a stooge of the Soviet Union who ‘hated Britain’ has created a massive storm. But it is only the latest in a long line of right-wing smears against the Labour left – with Tribune as a particular target – claiming it kow-towed to communist Russia … or worse. In an exclusive extract from their new book, Moscow Gold? The Soviet Union and the British left, Paul Anderson and Kevin Davey tell the grisly story of the lies of the 1960s and 1970s

After the 1963 defection to the Soviet Union of Kim Philby – the “third man” among the Cambridge spies, the first two of whom, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, had defected to Moscow in 1951, incontrovertible revelations of Britons spying for the Kremlin were few and far between. Indeed, apart from the fourth and fifth men of the Cambridge ring, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross, exposed in the late 1970s, there were only a dozen or so until after the cold war had come to an end, most of them sordid blackmail cases, the highest-profile that of Geoffrey Prime, a paedophile working at the Government Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham imprisoned in 1982.

By contrast, unsubstantiated rumours that Britons had acted as Moscow’s agents were rife, most of them with their origins in the conspiracy theories of Peter Wright and other paranoid right-wing members of MI5 who were convinced that the Cambridge spies were just the tip of a giant subversive Soviet network at the heart of the British establishment. In the mid-1970s these stories, fuelled by anti-semitism, came to play a pernicious part in British politics, as Wright and his associates mounted a concerted smear campaign against leading figures in the Labour Party and the trade union movement they considered spies or “security risks”.

The most prominent of them was none other than Harold Wilson, Labour prime minister 1964-70 and 1974-76. Wilson had been president of the board of trade between 1947 and 1951, in which role he had taken over a controversial plan to sell jets to the Soviet Union (eventually scuppered on US insistence) and had generally been an enthusiast for developing trade with the eastern bloc. In 1951, he had resigned with Aneurin Bevan from the Attlee Labour government in protest at chancellor Hugh Gaitskell’s insistence on accepting US demands for increased military spending. From the early 1950s, he worked for Montague Meyer, a company importing Soviet timber, as an adviser. His job gave him the opportunity for frequent high-profile visits to the Soviet bloc and it introduced him to a circle of businessmen, many of them Jews, who were engaged in east-west trade.

Throughout the 1950s, Wilson kept up a campaign to relax restrictions on east-west trade, starting with a 1952 Tribune pamphlet, In Place of Dollars, and pushed a dovish position on the cold war. He was the first prominent British parliamentarian to visit senior Moscow politicians after the death of Stalin in 1953. He met Khrushchev in Moscow in 1956, refused to join the chorus of disapproval at the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution and took a conciliatory line when the Berlin Wall went up.

All this made Wilson a target for public Tory accusations that he was soft on communism and sotto voce gossip in the Security Service to the effect that, along with his Jewish friends, he was a closet communist or even a Soviet agent. In the early 1960s it remained merely gossip. But after Wilson became Labour leader on Hugh Gaitskell’s death in early 1963, the story was given legs by the KGB defector Anatoly Golytsin, who, as well as exposing Philby, told MI5 that he had heard that the KGB had poisoned an un-named leading western politician to get their man in as party leader. Wright and others took this to mean Gaitskell and Wilson – even though Gaitskell died a year after Golytsin defected.

There followed 13 years of attempts to expose and undermine Wilson, despite there being no credible evidence against him. Wright and his cronies investigated not only Wilson himself but a vast swathe of others as part of their attempt to nail the Labour leader – his friends and former business partners, his political associates in the Bevanite movement – as well as Labour MPs, Labour Party officials and senior trade unionists with pasts in or close to the Communist Party, current connections with communists or any kind of links with the Soviet bloc. Jews were particularly suspect.

Two of Wilson’s friends were of particular interest to MI5, the Labour-supporting businessmen Rudy Sternberg and Joseph Kagan, both Jews of central European origin. Sternberg arrived in Britain from Austria in 1937, and after the war built up a substantial petrochemicals and trading empire. He first came to public attention when he organised a British parliamentary delegation to the Leipzig trade fair in East Germany in 1961, just after the construction of the Berlin Wall, and was accused with some reason of buying up MPs to forward his commercial interests. He became personally friendly with Wilson, subsidised his office as leader of the opposition between 1970 and 1974 and was given a peerage in Wilson’s resignation honours list. Sternberg was monitored closely by MI5, which spread rumours to journalists about his supposed political unreliability but never proved anything. Nothing damning has emerged since, at least on that score.

Kagan, born in Lithuania, was not really an east-west trader. He survived the war in his native country, arriving in Britain in 1946, and made a fortune in Huddersfield manufacturing waterproof coats. He too became a personal friend of Wilson and was constantly in and out of Downing Street during Wilson’s first term, contributing large sums to his office in opposition and getting the reward of a seat in the Lords in 1976. He was friendly for a period with a Soviet intelligence officer based at the London embassy, which massively excited MI5 in 1971 after a defecting KGB agent, Oleg Lyalin, relayed tales of Kagan’s boasting about his access to Wilson. Nevertheless, intensive surveillance in the early 1970s revealed no proof of espionage. Although many years later in 1980 Kagan was gaoled for theft, there still isn’t any credible evidence that he was anything other than a dodgy businessman.

Of the MPs targeted as “security risks” by MI5 during the Wilson years, only one admitted taking money, from an agent of the Czechoslovak intelligence service (the StB), the obscure backbencher Will Owen, a former member of the Independent Labour Party and MP for Morpeth after a byelection in 1954, who was named by the StB defector Josef Frolik in 1969. Owen, who had been on Sternberg’s payroll and was himself an east-west trader, had been a long-time Czechoslovak embassy contact and was on a list compiled by the Gaitskellite Labour right-winger Patrick Gordon Walker in 1961 of “cryptos” that he supplied to MI5 (reproduced in Christopher Andrew’s official history of MI5, published in 2009). He admitted the StB payments when he was arrested and was tried in 1970 for espionage, though he said he had not passed on secrets and was acquitted for lack of evidence: Andrew says that the files show Owen, who died in 1981, was indeed an StB agent.

Frolik also claimed that the postmaster-general since 1967 and MP for Wednesbury, John Stonehouse, had been in the employ of Prague. He had no proof, however, and Stonehouse, who had made much of his anti-communism as a leading player in London Co-op movement politics before becoming a government minister, denied he had done anything untoward. In 1974, Stonehouse, facing ruinous debts, rather spoilt his reputation for straight-dealing. He faked his own suicide and eloped to Australia with a woman who was not his wife. Misidentified as the wanted British peer Lord Lucan by local police, he was arrested, deported and, after a high-profile trial back in the UK, gaoled for fraud. According to Andrew, in 1980 another StB defector confirmed Stonehouse’s status as an agent; and in the 1990s an extensive StB file on Stonehouse was discovered in the Czech Republic that included complaints about the poor quality of information he supplied. Stonehouse died in 1988 after collapsing on a live TV show.

The third Labour MP named by Frolik was an even more colourful character, Tom Driberg. From a Jewish family and a member of the Communist Party from adolescence, Driberg became a journalist after Oxford University, working as a gossip columnist for Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express under the by-line William Hickey. Flamboyantly and promiscuously homosexual – at a time when homosexuality was illegal – he was expelled from the CP in 1941 after the party discovered that he had been meeting Maxwell Knight, the head of MI5, to exchange stories, and won Maldon in a by-election the next year standing as a left-leaning Independent in defiance of the wartime electoral truce among the coalition parties. He joined Labour in 1945, becoming one of the stars of the fellow-travelling left. After losing Maldon in 1955, he produced a biography of Beaverbrook, went to Moscow to interview Guy Burgess for a fawning but sensational biography, then returned to parliament as MP for Barking in 1959. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he was a fixture on Labour’s National Executive Committee, an advocate of CND and dozens of left-wing causes. It is difficult to conceive of a more unlikely figure becoming a politician let alone a spy, yet he appears to have talked to everyone and taken money from anyone prepared to offer it, quite possibly under threat of exposure for homosexuality. As well as keeping in with MI5, he is down as an agent for the KGB rather than the StB in documents copied by the former KGB archivist Vasiliy Mitrokhin, published as The Mitrokhin Archive in 1999. He was apparently persuaded to supply information to the Soviet spooks after being caught cottaging in Moscow while on his Burgess mission.

The other Frolik name, Barnett Stross, MP for Hanley 1945-50 and Stoke-on-Trent Central 1950-66, was a Jewish doctor who was an enthusiast for British-Czechoslovak friendship, but he died in 1967 and so far nothing beyond Frolik’s claims have turned up anywhere.

Frolik’s list aside, five Labour MPs are known to have been identified by MI5 during the Wilson years as “security risks”: in alphabetical order, John Diamond, Bernard Floud, Judith Hart, Niall MacDermot and Stephen Swingler.

Diamond, chief secretary to the Treasury between 1964 and 1970, was a rightwing pro-European who later joined the SDP; MI5 told journalists that a photograph of him with two Yugoslav women in Venice in 1964 was a KGB entrapment attempt (it wasn’t).

Floud, a former communist who might have had connections with Soviet intelligence as a student in the 1930s, was driven to suicide in 1967 after he was told by Peter Wright that he would not get the security clearance required to become a minister. All the evidence is that he had broken decisively with the CP, of which he had been an open member in the 1940s, in 1952.

Hart was hauled in by Wilson in 1974 after being accused by MI5 of illicit communist connections: she had called CP headquarters to ask for information about communists imprisoned by General Augusto Pinochet’s coup in Chile. There is no evidence that she was involved in anything approaching espionage.

MacDermot decided to walk away from British politics in 1968 after MI5 decided on the basis of sheer prejudice that his half-Italian, half-Russian wife was a security threat and Wilson caved into its demands that he be denied security clearance.

Swingler was a mercurial former-communist identified as a pro-Soviet “lost sheep” by Labour’s general secretary Morgan Phillips in a list compiled in the 1940s, and had been the moving force behind the pressure group Victory for Socialism that was the principal organisation on the Labour left in the late 1950s and early 1960s – which included as members Ralph Miliband, Michael Foot, Ian Mikardo, Jo Richardson, Judith Hart and many others who later became prominent in Labour left circles. Swingler was denied promotion to the cabinet in 1968 after MI5 cast aspersions on his east European connections, even though, like Floud, he had broken with the CP in the early 1950s and had been at most a fellow-traveller ever since. He died in 1969.

Others that got the MI5 treatment include Wilson’s secretary, Marcia Williams; the Jewish businessmen Robert Maxwell and Sidney Bernstein; and the trade union leaders Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon. All were investigated and smeared by MI5 spreading unsubstantiated allegations to favoured journalists. In none of their cases has evidence turned up that can be said to implicate them in espionage.

Jones was named, after his death in 2009, by the former Soviet-British double-agent agent Oleg Gordievsky as having accepted payment for information in the mid-1960s and then again in the 1980s (when Jones was running the National Pensioners Convention). But Gordievsky’s reliability is questionable – in particular on anything that is alleged to have happened in the UK in the 1960s, when he was a KGB gofer in Copenhagen. No end of friends of Jones have come forward to say that the TGWU leader made a point of arguing with Soviet bloc officials when he met them and debriefed MI5 on the meetings.

There is certainly no more reason to accept Gordievsky’s word on Jones than there is on Michael Foot. In 1995, the Sunday Times quoted Gordievsky naming Foot as a KGB “agent of influence”. Foot was supposed to have taken serious money for Tribune from the Soviet embassy. In fact, what Foot had done was accept Soviet journalistic contacts’ contributions to the bill after sharing lunch at the Gay Hussar, the east-European restaurant in Soho that remains a favourite venue for the political class, and had put the money – which was never much – into the Tribune "slush fund”, a venerable institution that lasted well into the 1980s and provided the float for the bar at the paper’s end-of-year party. Foot threatened to sue the Sunday Times for libel and won a hefty out-of-court settlement, an effective admission that Gordievsky’s claims would not stand up in court.

The Sunday Times also quoted Gordievsky naming Ian Mikardo as a “KGB target” (which means nothing more than that Soviet intelligence was inquisitive about the east-west trading business he ran for 20 years). Mikardo could do nothing because he had died in 1993, but contemporaries said that the idea of Mikardo compromising his politics for cash was ridiculous, and there is no evidence against him. Mikardo undoubtedly had delusions about the potential of Soviet socialism, but a more important part of his international politics was an unswerving enthusiasm for Israel that was profoundly at odds with Moscow’s anti-Zionism.

There have been plenty of other allegations published in recent years about supposed Soviet infiltration of Labour, ranging from the utterly idiotic – the Spectator’s presentation in 2009 of extracts from the diaries of a Soviet foreign policy adviser as proof that all the leading figures in the 1980s Labour Party were in cahoots with Moscow – to the more-or-less plausible. Was Dick Clements, editor of Tribune from 1960 to 1982, the journalist identified by Mitrokhin as “Dan”, the KGB’s main agent of influence in 1960s London, as the Sunday Times claimed in 1999, responsible inter alia for a series of articles attacking Wilson’s policies from the left? It’s possible that Dick was indeed Dan, to the KGB at least. But the idea that Clements needed help, let alone instruction, from the KGB to criticise Wilson from the left is utterly laughable. Clements, who died in 2006, responded to the Sunday Times piece by suggesting that one of his Soviet embassy journalistic contacts might have been fiddling his expenses by pretending to hand over cash. There is no reason to disbelieve him.

And what about Ray Fletcher, a journalist who was a regular in Tribune in the 1950s and early 1960s, a columnist in the Times in the 1970s and Labour MP for Ilkeston from 1964 to 1983? The Mitrokhin Archive refers tantalisingly to his having been recruited by the KGB in 1962 but then dropped in 1964 after it discovered he was in touch with the Czechoslovak StB; and there is an even more gnomic reference in the same book to Polish intelligence suspicions that he had been co-operating with the CIA since the late 1950s. Fletcher himself said shortly before he died in 1991 that he had eastern bloc contacts who subsequently turned out to be intelligence agents (and claimed to have been the target of an attempted blackmail attempt by MI5 after he had a holiday affair with a woman in Hungary). Was he actually an agent, and if he was did it matter at all? We just don’t know, and the fact that in the early 1960s he wrote a pamphlet against Tory defence policy and Panglossian pieces about the eastern bloc for Tribune proves no more than his consistent pro-Europeanism or his columns for the Times in which he supported the rehabilitation of Nikolai Bukharin. 

The case of another Labour backbencher, Bob Edwards, Labour MP for Biston 1955-74 and Wolverhampton South East 1974-87, seems at first sight more clear-cut. He was co-author of a 1961 exposé of CIA chief Allen Dulles that drew on Soviet source material, and Andrew’s official history of MI5 confidently names him as having worked for the KGB and having been rewarded for his efforts with a medal. Nevertheless, there’s still something odd about the story. Edwards was a veteran of the ILP and had led the ILP contingent that fought in the Spanish civil war with the POUM, which included George Orwell – hardly the background to be expected of a KGB informant. In the 1950s, as leader of the chemical workers’ union, he had been a member of the advisory council of the anti-communist trade union propaganda group Common Cause.

So what are we to make of all this? The most important lesson is that it is a good idea to be very sceptical about allegations of Labour espionage for the Soviets. Soviet bloc intelligence agencies counted as an “agent of influence”, “target” or “confidential contact” anyone who was prepared to talk to one of their placemen working under some cover or other. They had an obvious interest in exaggerating the success of their efforts to headquarters. MI5, particularly after the Cambridge spies and the Golitsyn defection, was all too ready to suspect anyone who had contact with eastern bloc officials in exactly the same terms. So was (and is) the Tory press.

At their most egregious, the stories of penetration of the Labour Party are little more than attempts to besmirch the reputations of the party and of socialist opponents of the cold war inside it who were at worst naïve and mistaken and at best incisive critics of received establishment wisdom. There’s also a nasty whiff of anti-semitism about many of the allegations.

Of course, it would be foolish to dismiss every claim as a smear. The cases against Owen, Stonehouse and Driberg appear today to be solid, and those against Fletcher and Edwards are at least credible. Yet even if we accept that these five MPs all provided information to the Soviets or their stooges as agents, we have little idea what it comprised – and it was probably not very much. Only one of them, Stonehouse, was a minister with access to any sort of state secrets, and it’s by no means clear which if any of them he handed over. The others could only have provided information already in the public sphere and political gossip, and they weren’t serious political players. The trade union leaders and left-wing journalists accused of espionage were similarly out of any loop that mattered when it came to state secrets however stupid they might have been.

The truth is that the only British leftist credibly confirmed as a serious Soviet bloc spy since Blunt had nothing to do with the Labour Party. She was an open, card-carrying member of the Communist Party of Great Britain: Melita Norwood. A former secretary for the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, she was unmasked in 1999 by Mitrokhin as having been a supplier of documentation on atomic research to Moscow in the 1940s and a KGB agent until the 1970s. She turned out to be living a modest life as an octogenarian Morning Star supporter in a London suburb – the least likely secret agent imaginable.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

FUTURE PROSPECTS

Tribune column, 4 October 2013

It’s taken long enough, but at last Ed Miliband seems to be finding a distinctive voice. His speech at Labour conference in Brighton was less than earth-shattering, but it was better than his previous efforts, not least because it contained some hints about what a Miliband Labour government would be like.

The most important, of course, was his promise of a two-year freeze on energy bills – a modest proposal but one sufficiently at odds with the free-market consensus to send the Tory press into a frenzy about how “Red Ed” was plotting a return to the extreme state socialism of the 1970s. That was a strange reaction, largely because no one under the age of 50 has an adult memory of the 1970s but also because anyone who, like me, was around then would be hard-pressed to remember much that was extreme or socialist about the Labour governments of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan – though we all have vivid memories of the lights going out during the three-day week in 1974, which happened under Ted Heath’s Tory government.

David Cameron and other senior Tories seem to have realised that the spectre of a return to the 1970s is not a runner. The line from the government is now that it feels the pain of gas and electricity bills but is powerless to act against the market – a breathtakingly hypocritical gambit given George Osborne’s enthusiasm for subsidised mortgages that will inflate further the already dangerous house price bubble in the south-east, but never mind.

The truth is that the pledge of a two-year energy bill freeze is not in itself a particularly big deal. The energy companies don’t like it, but they have been forewarned. They will almost certainly compensate by hiking their charges to consumers between now and spring 2015 and by buying gas and electricity in advance.

Nevertheless, it’s a politically astute move. The promise of an energy bill freeze chimes with the widespread feeling among voters that we’re being ripped off by private profiteers charging outrageous prices for the basics of life: not just heat and light, but rents, food, public transport, home insurance, water, telecoms, you name it.

Upmarket newspaper commentators have condescendingly tagged Miliband’s initiative as “populism” – by which they mean that it’s headline-grabbing and in tune with what people think – but it might just be more than that. For the first time in 20 years, a Labour leader dared to talk explicitly about market failure and suggested a small-scale palliative. It’s hardly a return to classic social democratic reformism, but at least it’s a start.

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I have spent the past month grappling with the challenges of publishing books online. A year ago, my friend Anna Chen and I set up an imprint to publish alternative books of various kinds, dead trees and electronic, Aaaargh! Press.

Since then we’ve put out a book of poems, Reaching for my Gnu by Anna (in print and as an ebook) and two Kindle ebooks, the first a collection of columns by the legendary music journo Charles Shaar Murray, The Guitar Geek Dossier and the second Moscow Gold? The Soviet Union and the British left by me and Kevin Davey.

We’re learning as we go along. Lesson number one is that you can’t do without Amazon: Jeff Bezos has established a global near-monopoly on book-selling, and you have to join in: Kindle is the only ebook format that makes sense or money. Lesson number two is that it isn’t free: Amazon takes at least 30 per cent of the sale price plus fees for hosting your book (otherwise known as sitting pretty). And lesson number three is that promotion is as difficult online as it ever was. If you offer a freebie, you lose sales. Hardly anyone looks at a Facebook post more than 30 minutes after it appears on your page. You’re lucky if you get five minutes’ attention for anything you put on Twitter. Everyone junks email from unknown senders.

But publishing online is also exciting. We’re not there yet, but I’ve seen the future and it might just work. Even on Amazon’s rates for hosting, you get 70 per cent minus a bit. As long as you don’t publish rubbish, as long as you publish enough, it could be how left-wing journalists keep body and soul together in the 21st century. If not, well, something else had better turn up …

RIGHT AND WRONG

Review of Robert Colls, George Orwell: English Rebel (Oxford University Press, £25), Tribune, 4 October 2013

I started Robert Colls’s new biography of George Orwell with some trepidation. Colls is a writer I like who has written intelligently and provocatively on working-class history and the creation of an English national identity – but I was wondering what a new biography could possibly add to the already massive literature on Orwell.

I was wrong to worry. This is a stunning piece of work, well researched, tautly written and often funny. Colls’s take on Orwell is that he should be understood as a writer grappling with his Englishness and with England.

His story is essentially one of how Orwell got to know and embrace the society into which he was born but from which he was semi-detached by his family’s class, his privileged education and his early career as a colonial policeman. The watershed is 1939-40, the start of the second world war, though it’s a bit more complicated than that.

 The key episodes and events are now as familiar as the writing they spawned, from Down and Out in Paris and London to Nineteen Eighty-Four. But Colls’s accounts are fresh, sometimes exhilarating. He weaves discussion of Orwell’s novels and most important essays apparently effortlessly into his exegesis of political and cultural context: there are no sharper précis of the 1930s novels, and Colls’s sense of the world in which Orwell was writing is spot-on time and again.

He is as pointed on everyday life in the empire as on the twists and turns of the Moscow line or the grim story of appeasement. He has read a great deal and taken it in, though he doesn’t show it off too blatantly. Colls is an admirer of Orwell, but not a slavish one. He is impatient with his subject’s hard-line left revolutionary politics in the late 1930s and his hypocritical anti-intellectualism, but he acknowledges what Orwell got right about Stalinism and its supporters among the British intelligentsia. I’ve not read a more judicious weighing up of Orwell’s experience in Spain in 1936-37 or a better summary of his brutal critical lashing of W H Auden.

The passages on the context of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four are not as good … but by then the argument has largely been made. There are lacunae and what I think are errors of judgment. Colls has little to say about Orwell the left-wing journalist, most importantly as a columnist on Tribune in the 1940s – and that means he is prone to downgrade the extent to which Orwell was in tune with the Labour left in the 1940s (although he catches perfectly Orwell’s relationship with Aneurin Bevan).

Like a lot of Orwell’s anarchist, Trotskyist and right-wing friends who thought his Labourism a terrible sell-out, he gives too much attention to the old trope that Orwell was a “Tory anarchist”, a joking self-description from the early 1930s, and too little to the Trotskyist and left-libertarian influences on his thinking that offer better explanations for his deviations from the left orthodoxies of his day than any vestige of Toryism (for which see John Newsinger’s excellent Orwell’s Politics and Bernard Crick’s now venerable biography). And, most important of all, I think Colls underplays Orwell’s sense of himself not as an English intellectual but as a European democratic leftist: there’s another reading of his life and concerns, still to be written, that places him squarely as a pioneer of left-wing European republican federalism.

But these are quibbles: we all have our own Orwell. Colls’s is not mine exactly, but this is a volume to enjoy and with which to disagree. It is the best book on Orwell to appear for several years, erudite and original. It catches the extent to which Orwell lived on his wits better than any other account of his life. It’s up there with Crick, Gordon Bowker and D J Taylor.