Friday, 21 December 2007

BLAST FROM THE PAST

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 21 December 2007

James Lamond, the former Labour MP who died last month at the age of 78, was not someone I knew well. I interviewed him for news stories in the late 1980s and early 1990s and met him several times, mostly at meetings. He was, in my limited experience, a polite, witty and friendly man – and by all accounts he was an excellent constituency MP, first of all for Oldham East and then for Oldham Central and Royton, and an assiduous parliamentarian.

But in one crucial respect his politics reeked. He might not have made headlines in the London papers, but to the rest of the world he was the most prominent Soviet fellow-traveller in Labour’s parliamentary ranks during the 1970s and 1980s, serving for several years as vice-president of the World Peace Council, the Moscow-funded front organisation created early in the cold war to campaign for Soviet and against American foreign policy.

The reason I interviewed him was precisely to get the residual pro-Soviet Labour left line on events as the cold war first froze and then melted in the course of the 1980s. And he never failed to oblige. He echoed the official Soviet position on every issue, defending the invasion of Afghanistan, the suppression of Solidarity in Poland, the stationing of SS-20 missiles in eastern Europe and all the rest. The last time I saw him, I think in 1990, he admitted to being depressed by the fall of the Berlin wall.

Lamond was not a mainstream figure. His extraordinarily uncritical brand of pro-Sovietism was always at odds with official Labour policy, and by the early-to-mid 1980s was freakish even among the most hard-left Labour MPs, shared by a handful of veteran Stalinists whose careers were coming to an end (Frank Allaun, Joan Maynard) and a smattering of younger dupes (Ron Brown, George Galloway).

But Lamond’s politics had a colourful history. As Patrick Wright shows in his brilliant new book, Iron Curtain, the British left’s fascination with and delusions about Soviet Russia started as soon as the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. Through the 1920s and 1930s, a string of British left-wing tourists -- most famously George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, but they were not alone -- declared that they had seen the future and that it worked. Much of the Labour Party leadership agreed.

Stalin’s betrayal of Spain, the show trials and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact immunised a generation of Labourites and left-wingers to the charms of the Soviet Union; the onset of the cold war did the same for another tranche. But in the 1950s, as the historian John Callaghan has related convincingly, the Labour left for the most part reverted to wishful thinking about the possibilities for democratic reform of what became known as “actually existing socialism”.

All that was distant by the 1980s -- Czechoslovakia 1968 and Poland 1981 had intervened, along with an increasingly apparent crisis in the Soviet economy. But pro-Sovietism retained a significant foothold in the left outside the parliamentary Labour Party. In the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament there was a strong pro-Soviet minority. The World Peace Council and its British affiliate, the British Peace Assembly, had sufficient support to be taken seriously by their opponents, and many people who should have known better accepted their bona fides. In several trade unions, particularly in Scotland, there was a well-organised pro-Soviet lobby, based on the Communist Party’s industrial organisation, which was efficient at getting resolutions passed by Labour Party and union branches and union conferences.

Even those parts of the British left least prone to pro-Sovietism got caught up in the show after Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985 and initiated a reform programme that fleetingly promised a democratic socialist transformation of the Soviet police state. “Gorbymania” was an idiocy, but it was heartily embraced by Tribune, every Trot in town and the whole of the Labour leadership.

But back to James Lamond. I have no doubt that he was sincere in his belief that the Soviet Union wanted nothing other than peace. He told me once that he had been convinced of the pacific intentions of the Soviet people by a tour of Russia in the 1960s, when he met a veteran of Stalingrad. (He told the same story to the historian Darren Lilleker, whose book on the pro-Soviet left in the Labour Party, Against the Cold War, was published three years ago.)

But his sincerity is neither here nor there. At best, Lamond’s naivety was astounding. His and his comrades’ idiotic identification of the Soviet Union as the grand hope of the socialist movement, 60-plus years after Kronstadt, 40-plus after the Stalin show trials and 20-plus after the Hungarian revolution, did nothing but harm to the cause of democratic socialism in Britain.

Monday, 19 November 2007

THE PAST BEFORE US

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 23 November 2007

Heaven knows I don’t need another online distraction to add to Facebook, Radio 4 Listen Again and the Ipswich Town fanzine’s message board. But last week I found one that I know is going to consume hours and hours of my life: the Guardian and Observer Digital Archive, launched this month, which makes accessible online every issue of the Manchester Guardian (latterly without the Manchester) from 1821 to 1975 and every issue of the Observer from 1900 to 1975.

It’s fully searchable, really easy to browse – and completely addictive. Why, I was so engrossed last Saturday morning that I didn’t poke my favourite Facebook pokee (you know who you are) for two whole hours.

Seriously, though, it is an absolutely stunning achievement that is both a real service to serious historians and something that will enthral general readers. From a purely selfish point of view, it’s going to make it a lot easier to do the research for my lectures at City University – I teach two modules on the history of journalism – and for a couple of book projects I have under way. Much as I love the British Library Newspaper Library in Colindale, it’s three hours from home and one from work, and any alternative to microfiche is a blessed relief.

Not that the Guardian/Observer online archive is the first of its kind or even the biggest. The Times put its archive online four years ago. It has the advantage (for now at least) that you can get access to it for free via most public library websites if you are a member of the public library: you have to pay for access to the Guardian/Observer archive, although you can try it out for free for the rest of this month.

But by comparison with the Guardian/Observer site, the Times one is a bit clunky – and, well, the Times is the Times. For most of the past 150 years it has been the establishment’s paper of record – whereas the Manchester Guardian started as a voice for reform and has remained one, and the Observer has been of the centre-left since the 1940s. The Times is of course an indispensable historical source, but it is not always the best one, particularly if you want to know what liberals, socialists, trade unionists and feminists were thinking and doing.

Probably the most exciting project in this area, however, is the British Library’s massively ambitious plan to get all its newspaper collection digitised and online, which went live last month with more than 1 million pages from 19th-century British newspapers available free online to anyone from a UK further or higher education institution. I’ve not yet had a chance to try it out and the 19th century isn’t my speciality, but the Xmas vacation looms. In a couple of weeks I have a feeling I’ll be wondering what I ever saw in Facebook.

***

On a different matter entirely, I have been mightily entertained by the shenanigans that have split Respect, the George Galloway Trots-plus-Islamists party, in two. They started in the summer when Galloway, the party’s sole MP, picked a fight with the main Trot faction in Respect, the Socialist Workers Party, demanding that the Islamists be given greater prominence in the organisation – and ended last weekend with the farce of two competing Respect events being held simultaneously in different parts of London, a national conference at the University of Westminster (dominated by the SWP) and a rally (starring Galloway and his chums) near Liverpool Street station.

I always thought Respect was an alliance of (deeply unattractive) incompatibles and that it would all end in tears – and it’s gratifying to be proved right by the course of events. The question now is whether Galloway has retained sufficient support to make a serious challenge to Labour at the next general election in the new Poplar and Limehouse constituency, most of which covers the same area as the current Poplar and Canning Town constituency where Jim Fitzpatrick is MP.

Galloway currently represents the next-door constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow but is switching because Poplar and Limehouse has a greater concentration of Muslim voters he thinks he can attract with the help of assorted “community leaders” and Islamists. Hunch tells me he’s unlikely to win – but hunch told me he wouldn’t win Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005.

Whatever, it’s going to be some fight. There are quite a few Labour activists who consider the defeat of Galloway a higher priority than any other – and Tower Hamlets’ politics are more fractious (and volatile) than any other London borough’s. It won’t be as important to the national picture as, say, Worcester or Battersea, but, as long as Galloway stands, Poplar and Limehouse will certainly be top of my list of results to look out for next election night.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

GORDON SHOWS SOME BOTTLE

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 26 October 2007

In the wake of the election that wasn’t, it seems a bit strange to congratulate Gordon Brown for not losing his bottle when it matters. But – so far – our boy is keeping his nerve on something more crucial.

All the indications are that there will not be a referendum on the European Union treaty that tidies up various institutional arrangements in the wake of enlargement. And that is cause for democrats to celebrate – because it means that Brown has decided to call Rupert Murdoch’s bluff.

Murdoch is Britain’s biggest press magnate, possibly the world’s biggest media magnate, and his anti-Europeanism is visceral. Last month he ordered his mass-market daily, the Sun, to start a campaign for a referendum on the EU treaty. The first blast came on the Monday of Labour’s conference. The paper ran a front-page montage of Brown’s head imposed on Winston Churchill’s body, with the composite figure sticking up two fingers to readers alongside the headline “Europe: never have so few decided so much for so many”.

It wasn’t the greatest tabloid splash – but the message was clear enough, and the Sun followed it with a week of populist anti-European invective mixed with heavy hints that it would back the Tories at election time. The next week was the Tories in Blackpool, which ended with the polls swinging in David Cameron’s favour. And the weekend after that Gordon met Rupert and announced that there wouldn’t be an election this autumn.

What future historians would give for the transcript of that Brown-Murdoch meeting. I wasn’t there, I wasn’t briefed. But hunch tells me that the key conversation went something like this. Murdoch: “I’ll back you in an early election if you promise a referendum on the treaty.” Brown: “Sorry, no deal.”

There are of course other scenarios that are easily imaginable. The most depressing is as above but with a different answer. Brown: “Thanks very much and I’ll do it when the time comes, but not right now because the polls have gone against us.” Or try this, which is maybe more realistic. Brown: “I’d go for it if the polls were OK, but you’re going to have to live with no referendum – because an election isn’t happening.”

Whatever, Brown’s statement this week on the EU negotiations makes me think my hunch is right, even if there are qualifications to Brown’s “no way”. He might not be particularly enthusiastic about the treaty, but he seems to have recognised that he has no alternative but to get it through parliament despite Murdoch’s opposition.

Now – if I’m right – this isn’t the first time a powerful media owner has been defied by a democratically elected British politician. A century ago, Lord Northcliffe, aka Alfred Harmsworth, the prototype press baron who had a portfolio of newspapers even bigger than Murdoch’s – at its peak his empire included not only the biggest-selling national daily, the Daily Mail, and the Times, but also the second-biggest-selling national daily, the Daily Mirror, and a whole lot more besides – was consistently at odds with the great reforming Liberal government elected in the landslide of 1906. But the government told him to get lost on pretty much everything, leaving Northcliffe fuming impotently on the sidelines until the first world war started to go horribly wrong.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the press barons of the day – Northcliffe’s brother Rothermere, a fascist-sympathising bean-counter who had inherited most of his brother’s papers, and Beaverbrook, the eccentric megalomaniac who ran the Daily Express – set up a political party to fight the Tories’ opposition to protectionism for the empire. It got nowhere and is remembered mainly for the jibe of the Tory prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, that the press barons exercised “power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”.

Labour and right-wing media moguls never used to get on, but for the past 13 years – since Tony Blair became leader – the party’s leading lights have consistently kow-towed to Murdoch in order to win his newspapers’ backing at election time. Precisely what has been conceded to him to win his favour is a matter for conjecture, but it’s safe to assume it has been quite a lot, if only in the field of media regulation.

Was it worth it? Well, Labour has won three elections in a row, which it had never done before. But whether that is down to the support of the Murdoch press is a moot point.

Now, however, the love-in seems to have come to an end – though what that means remains to be seen. My hope is that breaking with Murdoch on the Europe referendum will have a liberating effect on the government as Labour politicians realise they have a great deal more freedom for manoeuvre than they have assumed in recent years. But we shall see.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

ORWELL'S BRUSH WITH BIG BROTHER

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 18 September 2007

I know it’s a bit late to give you my take on the materials released at the beginning of the month by the National Archives – but I’ve not had a chance before now, so you’re lumped with it. I’m talking about the surveillance files on George Orwell, of course, which occupied the up-market papers for a day or two four weeks ago and since have been completely forgotten.

The documents show that Orwell was tracked by Special Branch and the spooks pretty much from the point at which he decided to quit the imperial police in Burma in 1928 until his death in 1950. The files include reports on his most mundane journalistic activities researching The Road to Wigan Pier – and one Special Branch plod described him in 1942 as holding “advanced communist views”. Cue an outburst of surprise that the powers-that-be could be so stupid as to mistake the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four for a communist-sympathising subversive.

Now, there is certainly something newsworthy about the author of two of the 20th century’s most famous warnings against totalitarian surveillance being watched over and reported on by Britain’s security state – and the files make fascinating reading. (You can get them free as downloads online here.) Yet it’s not so strange that the security state took an interest in Orwell – and the truth is that the people who kept an eye on him were by no means as daft as most commentators on the newly released material suggest.

Orwell was an avowed revolutionary socialist for at least five years of his life, from 1936 to 1941, and he was sympathetic to revolutionary socialism both before and after this period. He fought for a militia in the Spanish civil war that was explicitly dedicated to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, then joined the Independent Labour Party during its most intransigent and rhetorically insurrectionist phase. He discussed with Herbert Read the possibility of setting up an underground guerrilla anti-war resistance movement if war came. And then, in the first couple of years of the second world war, he argued that only a revolution could save Britain from fascism. He saw the Home Guard – yes, Dad’s Army – as a would-be revolutionary proletarian militia.

As he wrote in Tribune on 20 December 1940: “We are in a strange period of history in which a revolutionary has to be a patriot and a patriot has to be a revolutionary. We know, even if the Blimps don’t, that without a radical change in our social system the war cannot be won.”

There was even a brief point when he was a communist fellow-traveller. Despite the disparaging references to the Communist Party in The Road to Wigan Pier and his vehement anti-communism from 1937 until his death, before his experience of the Stalinist suppression of the revolutionaries in Spain in 1937 he was not unsympathetic to the communist line. Before his eyes were opened by the Barcelona May Days, he almost joined the communist-dominated International Brigades.

In other words, Orwell was for a significant period of his life a vocal subversive – if one with very little chance of success – and it shouldn’t come as any surprise that there are Special Branch and security service files on him. If there was going to be a revolution in Britain in the late 1930s (and OK, it wasn’t very likely) Orwell was going to be part of it, if only as the first victim of a Stalinist firing-squad.

What is genuinely remarkable, by contrast, is that the files, or at least those that have been released, are for the most part accurate. Apart from the goof by the Special Branch officer who over-enthusiastically claimed Orwell to be a communist sympathiser in 1942 – a report, incidentally, that some superior dismissed as crap – there is little that is other than routinely factual. There is also no evidence that any of the material collected on Orwell did him any harm: he was cleared to work for the BBC in 1942 and as a war correspondent for the Observer in 1943 (although he didn’t do it for a couple of years, becoming literary editor of Tribune instead).

Whether the state should monitor those it sees as subversive is, of course, another question. When I was a revolutionary – and I was, honestly – my comrades and I took it for granted that we were monitored by the state. After all, we were its enemy, and we posed a threat. Since giving up on that revolution stuff, I’ve taken the view that surveillance needs to be kept to a minimum and strictly controlled. But where do you draw the line? Twenty years ago I would have been outraged at tabs being kept on cuddly Paul Foot and harmless Tariq Ali. Now I worry that intelligence on Islamist crazies is utterly inadequate.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

WORK? WHO NEEDS IT?

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 17 August 2007

What did you do this summer? I spent the Saturday on the beach at Felixstowe and the Sunday working.

OK, weak joke – but it’s true. So far in Suffolk we’ve had just one weekend of temperatures soaring into the 80s (that’s above 27C for younger readers) and not a single day to prompt the East Anglian Daily Times to run a “Phew! What a scorcher!” headline. Just about the only thing to feel smug about is that it hasn’t been quite as wet here as it has Yorkshire and Middle England.

But the worst of it is that I spent one of the two properly sunny days we’ve had stuck in an office staring at a screen. Ever since I left university, I’ve had a vague sense every year that I’ve missed half the summer working – and this year I know I have.

To which you might reply: “Stop whingeing” – and you’d have a point. What I do for a living is hardly onerous: I’m an academic and journalist, which means that I spend summer marking exams, preparing lectures, doing odd newspaper shifts, grinding through dull academic administration et cetera. And it’s partly my own stupid fault that I do as much work as I do. If I organised my time better, if I delegated more, if I switched off the mobile phone, if I said “no” more often, I’d get a lot more time off.

The thing is, though, that I currently just want it to stop – and it never does. Twenty years ago I had academic friends who seemed to spend a good 10 or 12 weeks every summer away from the office in the library doing research or in the south of France dossing about, and the main reason I went for an academic job seven years ago was that I wanted a bit of the same. In my dreams!

The truth is that I’ve never seen work as a massively good thing. When I was an anarchist student, I was very impressed by various Italian and French Marxist theorists who saw a growing “refusal of work” on the part of the proletariat as prefiguring the revolutionary transcendence of capital – and although that particularly daft idea lost its appeal for me not long after the grant cheques stopped coming, I’ve never reconciled myself to the idea that work is anything but a more or less unpleasant necessity.

My favourite work of classical Marxism remains The Right to be Lazy by Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in -law, first published in 1883, with its ringing declaration: “In capitalist society work is the cause of all intellectual degeneracy.” And the one public pronouncement by US President Ronald Reagan with which I have some sympathy is his gag: “It's true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?”

Now, I know this line of argument winds up a lot of Tribune readers. Last time I used it the paper got lots of angry letters, most of them arguing that I wouldn’t have such an anti-work attitude if I’d ever tasted serious unemployment. Fair enough: if there’s one thing worse than the tedium of wage labour, it’s being involuntarily deprived of it and condemned to hopeless poverty. I’d accept, too, that some sorts of work, in moderate quantities, can be genuinely fulfilling.

But, leaving aside the fact that many if not most jobs are anything but fulfilling, you can have too much of any job – and most of us in Britain do. We work some of the longest hours in Europe and take the fewest days holiday. We commute longer distances than anyone else and suffer more work-stress-related disease.

Why? The main reason is that we need the money. Particularly in southern England but increasingly elsewhere, housing is prohibitively expensive. There is a shocking shortage of social housing, private rented housing is a gigantic rip-off, and the extraordinary inflation of house prices has put first-time buying beyond the reach of all but workaholics on fat salaries and the offspring of rich parents. And once you’ve managed to get somewhere to live at exorbitant cost – almost certainly miles from where you work -- you’ve then got to add the punitive costs of commuting and child care and all the rest.

Building more affordable homes, particularly in the south-east, as promised by Gordon Brown as he became prime minister, is part of the solution, but it will not be enough on its own. We also need faster and cheaper commuting, incentives to encourage companies to introduce electronic homeworking, more public holidays and enhanced rights for workers to allow them to resist employers’ demands for overtime and to reduce their own working hours as they choose. Oh, and summers that last more than a weekend so we can enjoy our more leisurely lives. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

Friday, 6 July 2007

OBITUARY: DOUGLAS HILL

Paul Anderson, Tribune, 6 July 2007

Douglas Hill, the reviews editor of Tribune from 1971 to 1983, has died after being run over by a double-decker bus as he walked over a pedestrian crossing in north London. He was 72.

A charming Canadian polymath with a razor-sharp but self-deprecating wit, he was a prolific author. The best-selling of his 50-odd books were children’s science fiction and fantasy titles: before the arrival of Harry Potter he was the most popular children’s author in Britain. But he also wrote science fiction for adults and several non-fiction titles, among them an anthology-cum-history of this newspaper to mark its 40th birthday 30 years ago, Tribune 40: Forty years of a socialist newspaper, which remains the only book-length account of the first half of its life.

Born in Manitoba and educated at the universities of Saskatchewan and Toronto, he arrived in Britain in 1959 with his then wife Gail Robinson, becoming an editor at a publishing company. He joined Tribune as reviews editor in 1971, taking over from Elizabeth Thomas. “My intention was to carry on, in my way, what she and others before her had established as the proper roles and obligations of the reviews section of a socialist paper,” he wrote modestly in 1977, but it is no insult to Thomas, herself a great reviews editor, to say that he did much more than that.

Under his stewardship, the reviews pages started to fizz, just as the rest of the paper became increasingly worthy-and-dull in its obsession with the arguments against Britain joining (and then remaining in) the Common Market. His choice of reviewers was inspired in its eclecticism, and the column he wrote most weeks, “Platform”, was the closest the paper has come to emulating George Orwell’s “As I Please” column of the 1940s in its intellectual range and in its humour. Many of the people he recruited as writers are still valued contributors more than 20 years on.

He remained in touch with Tribune long after he left: he wrote reviews until well into the 1990s and was a regular at the editorial lunches organised by Sheila Noble, the paper’s production editor, chief sub and unofficial social secretary. Although he joked about being past-it when I last saw him a few months ago, he looked as spry as he was in the 1980s – and his repartee was as dazzling and as mischievous as ever. His sudden death is a shock, and everyone lucky enough to have known him will miss him. He is survived by his son and his former wife.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

ONE MP, 845 MEMBERS' VOTES

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 22 June 2007

At least it’s nearly over. Labour’s deputy leadership contest has been even more uneventful than I expected when I wrote about it last month. It hasn’t set off a serious debate about the future of British social democracy inside the Labour Party — let alone among the voters as a whole. In fact, it has barely engaged even my most political friends. I don’t remember a single discussion of it lasting more than two minutes that went beyond speculation about who will win.

Which of course is the only interesting thing about it, not least because it may well highlight the absurdities of the electoral college Labour uses for leadership and deputy leadership elections.

Labour headquarters and lazy political commentators always describe the party’s means of choosing its leaders as “one member, one vote”, but it’s a bit more complex than that. Every member does have a vote. But, because the electorate is divided into a three-section electoral college, each section with one-third of the total vote, some members have more than one vote because they belong to more than one section. And, more important, the weight of your vote depends on what sort of member you are.

In the first section are Labour MPs and MEPs; in the second individual Labour Party members; and in the third members of affiliated organisations (mainly trade unions). So, because there are 371 MPs and MEPs, 180,000 ordinary members and a little more than 3 million members of affiliated organisations, the vote of each MP and MEP is worth nearly the same as 485 ordinary members’ votes and more than 8,000 affiliated trade unionists’ votes. (These figures are based on the assumption that everyone entitled to vote does so, which of course isn’t so, but you get the picture.)

I’ll accept that this system, adopted in 1993, is less of a dog’s breakfast than the electoral college that preceded it, introduced in 1981. In that electoral college, the unions had 40 per cent of votes, MPs 30 per cent and constituency Labour parties 30 per cent — and neither the unions nor the CLPs were under any compulsion to ballot their members before casting block votes at Labour conference. At least the current electoral college involves the counting of individual votes rather than an aggregation of decisions taken by various committees behind closed doors.

The current system is a dog’s breakfast all the same, however. The only time it has been used before this deputy leadership election was in 1994, when Tony Blair swept to victory in the leadership election and John Prescott won the deputy leadership, with both securing more than 50 per cent of first-preference votes in each of the three sections of the college. But this sort of clear, unequivocal result is by no means guaranteed. The electoral college could also produce a winner who has — say — little support among MPs but strong support among individual members and trade unionists. And in a six-candidate contest the winner could be the fourth on first preferences who picks up a large proportion of second preferences. And so on.

I’m not saying that this weekend will see a messy result, just that it might. And if it does ... look forward to 18 months of Labour doing what it used to do best: arguing about its leadership election procedures. I don’t really want to go there, but if pushed I’d back the leader being elected by MPs alone, with the deputy elected by ordinary members alone — and mandatory annual parliamentary selections. (Just kidding about the last one.)

+++

OK, it's last week’s news, but I’d like to add my tuppence-worth to the controversy over Tony Blair’s assault on the “feral beasts” of the media last week. Having been at the receiving end of the Blairite spin machine during the 1990s, I’m not inclined to sympathy with the man or his way of operating. It was cowardly of him to pick on the poor old Independent and the BBC as his only examples of how the media have dropped the habit of straight reporting: he should at least have fingered the Mail. And he should have made it clear that Rupert Murdoch’s policy of editorial support in return for relaxed media regulation (and no euro) is an outrageous affront to democracy.

But Blair has got a point. The arrogance, cynicism, pack mentality, superficiality, sensationalism and sheer ignorance of much British media coverage of politics are not new, but their ubiquity is. Twenty years ago you could avoid them by shunning the popular national press, local radio and William Rees-Mogg: if you stuck to the qualities, the weeklies, the BBC and ITN you could get your politics straight and in depth. No longer. There is plenty of good political journalism out there, but the smart-arsed, the asinine and the hysterical now crop up pretty much everywhere — and far too much goes unreported. As to why this is so — well, that’s another column.


Footnotes: Gordon Brown is brilliant on Newsnight here. And Hitchens, C does us all proud on Question Time here. Maybe there's some hope after all.

OLD ROMANTICS

Paul Anderson, review of The Offbeat Radicals by Geoffrey Ashe (Methuen, £17.99), Tribune 22 June 2007

The Offbeat Radicals is a book I can imagine being published in the 1930s. It is an erudite introduction for the general reader to a vast swathe of English radical writers from the French revolution to the early years of the 20th century who would once have been labelled “romantic”. It’s rather like what H. N. Brailsford or G. D. H. Cole used to do.

Footnotes are sparse; prĂ©cis is the norm. The autodidact who reads it from cover to cover will get a very good idea of what a large number of (broadly speaking) 19th-century polemicists and poets had to say – some of them, such as Blake and Shelley, read widely today but rarely put into context; others, such as Godwin, Carlyle and Bradlaugh, very much forgotten; still others, such as Morris, acknowledged but largely ignored.

Ashe is a specialist in Arthurian myth and a great enthusiast for G. K. Chesterton. His theme here is the persistence with which, after the French revolution went sour for English radicals, the latter adopted a rhetoric and a way of looking at life that were borrowed from dissident Christian myths of a pre-capitalist world of co-operation, equality and social cohesion. They were alternative medievalists, precursors of “small is beautiful” and dead keen on tradition.

Some Tribune readers will recognise this as an old anti-socialist tune. And indeed Ashe’s target, if there is one, is those who would subsume the Godwins, the Blakes, the Shelleys and so on, right up to William Morris, into a narrative of class struggle and proto-Marxism. My hunch is that he wants to capture them for something mistily and nostalgically Eurosceptic.

If you, like me, are still there with Edward Thompson in your reading of the 19th century, you will have a problem with this. Although Ashe is right when he argues that there is a tradition of radicalism that goes beyond left and right as we now know them, he underplays the extent to which it influenced working-class culture in the early and mid-19th century and socialism (and indeed modernism) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His calling it “offbeat radicalism” is also annoying: the old tag “romantic radicalism” works much better, not least because it is familiar. (It is also as flexible, if not more so, than his clumsy coinage.)

But these are small points. There is no better recent introduction to the radical writers of 19th-century England than this. It is beautifully written, difficult to put down, and more books like this should be published.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

A CONTEST DOESN'T GUARANTEE DEBATE

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 25 May 2007

I have never quite worked out why so many people who are involved in politics think that party leadership contests provide a marvellous opportunity for debate. Every time the top post falls vacant in any of our major political parties — and in Labour’s case when the deputy leader goes — the cry goes up that there must be a contest to ensure a debate on the party’s future. Then there’s either a lot of huffing and puffing about how the absence of a contest means that debate has been stifled, or else there’s a contest, in which all the candidates make a point of welcoming the chance for debate that the contest offers.

What rarely if ever happens, however, is any actual debate. Sure, the candidates produce vague personal manifestos, give interviews to the newspapers and the broadcast media, tour the country delivering anodyne speeches and — these days — make fools of themselves on the internet. Sometimes they even appear on hustings platforms with one another. But I can think of only one leadership or deputy leadership contest in any of the major political parties in the past 20 years in which candidates have engaged in substantive discussion of their party’s overall direction.

That was way back in 1988, when Tony Benn and Eric Heffer challenged Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley for Labour’s leadership and deputy leadership. (John Prescott also stood for deputy, but that’s another story.) Against the shift towards the political centre that Kinnock and Hattersley had started since 1983, Benn and Heffer offered a clear left alternative: renationalisation of everything the Tories had privatised, withdrawal from the European Community, no compromise on unilateral nuclear disarmament, no expulsions of Trotskyists from the Labour Party. Labour in those days had a system for electing its leaders in which unions and constituency parties did not have to ballot their members before casting their votes, so the official result showing Benn taking 11.4 per cent of the vote and Heffer 9.5 per cent needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt. But the scale of the left’s defeat was awesome — so awesome in fact that many on the left wondered afterwards whether it might not have been more sensible not to have mounted a challenge.

Since then, Labour has had two leadership and deputy leadership contests and is now having a leadership non-contest and deputy contest; the Tories have had six leadership contests and one non-contest; and the Lib Dems have had two leadership contests. But not one of them has sparked a serious internal debate about a party’s direction.

Although all but the last two of the Tories’ battles in the past 20 years have in the end been a pro-European versus an anti-European (or at least someone thought by supporters to be anti-European), none has been conducted in explicitly political terms: all have been about the personal qualities of the candidates.

Of course, that’s partly because the Tories always do politics that way — but the phenomenon is just as marked with Labour. There were real enough political differences between John Smith and Bryan Gould in 1992, particularly over Europe, but they spent most of their time during the contest (if indeed it should be described as such) agreeing with one another about how crucial it was to reform Labour’s internal structures. In 1994, Tony Blair was as much of a shoo-in as Smith had been two years earlier, with both John Prescott and Margaret Beckett interested only in which one of them became his deputy.

Maybe it would all have been different this time had John McDonnell made it on to the leadership ballot, but I have my doubts. Nothing he could have done or said would have changed his position as a hopeless outsider, and Gordon Brown would have found it easy to avoid giving hostages to fortune. In any case, McDonnell didn’t make it, so all we have is a deputy leadership contest with six candidates, all of whom know that the media will pounce on any hint of their differing with Brown.

I’m already sick of it, and we’ve still got four more weeks. For what it’s worth, as things stand I’m voting for Hilary Benn because I think he talks sense on foreign policy, but I’m also impressed by the things John Cruddas has been saying about Labour’s need to revitalise its appeal to working-class voters — and I’ve always liked Peter Hain. In fact, I’m not going to despair whoever wins.

What I’m not expecting any of them to do is add much to the discussion about what a Brown government should do by way of policy. Nor will any of them have any say in who gets which jobs in that government. The truth is that all the cards are now in Brown’s hands, and nothing forseeable of great importance will happen until he chooses to play them.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

EVEN IF ROYAL LOSES, SANITY HAS WON

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 27 April 2007

Small things can cheer you up sometimes, and this week’s small thing for me was that Segolene Royal came second in the first round of the French presidential election. I spent Sunday night feeling pleased.

I’m not entirely sure why it did the trick. It was only the first round, for heaven’s sake, and she has a lot to do to win. She won only 26 per cent of the vote, and only 11 per cent of voters chose far-left no-hopers in the first round and have nowhere else to go. (Note in passing here the pathetic showing by the candidate of the once mighty French Communist Party, who took less than 2 per cent of the vote.)

After that, it’s grim. Royal desperately needs suport from people who backed the centrist Francois Bayrou in the first round — 19 per cent of the extraordinary 85 per cent of voters who turned out — and from supporters of the fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen (11 per cent). She’ll get few of the latter (though more than many expect) but her real problem is the people who voted for Bayrou. The opinion polls suggest that more than half of them will vote for the scary Nicolas Sarkocy, the right-wing candidate Royal has to beat in the second round, who got 31 per cent last weekend. As I write, Royal’s plea to Bayrou for a second-round alliance — a daring but desperate move — has not been answered.

At least, though, it isn’t a repeat of 2002, when self-indulgent leftists voting Trot, Stalinist and Green denied the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin a place in the second round, leaving Jacques Chirac to fight it out with Le Pen — with no choice for anyone decent but voting for Chirac as the lesser of two evils. Even if it looks as if Royal has too much ground to make up before the second round, she does have an outside chance, and that in itself is progress on five years ago.

+++

On another subject entirely, I was shocked and surprised by the news last week that the annual delegate meeting of the National Union of Journalists, of which I have been a member for nearly 25 years, has voted to boycott Israeli products.

I can see the rationale for the boycott: I’m no fan of the current Israeli administration, which has done nothing to promote a lasting peace deal with the Palestinians and a lot to reduce the likelihood of such a deal. And I think that it’s perfectly legitimate for the west to put pressure on Israel to return to the negotiating table, give up the West Bank settlements, tear down the wall and so on.

My problem is that I don’t think that the NUJ boycotting Israeli goods is a very clever way of putting pressure on the Israeli government to do these things. The NUJ is tiny, so there is no way that the boycott, even if observed by every one of its members, could have any significant impact on the Israeli economy. Politically, however, the boycott has a much greater impact — and it is entirely counterproductive if the goal is to get the Israeli government back to the negotiating table to talk about a workable two-state solution in Israel/Palestine.

If NUJ members (or indeed anyone else outside Israel/Palestine) are serious about doing their bit to facilitate a lasting peace deal, they should be encouraging dialogue and compromise between Israelis and Palestinians and discouraging confrontation. Boycotting Israeli goods can only do the opposite. On one hand, it gives succour — if only a thimbleful — to Hamas, Hizbullah and all the others who would like to see Israel destroyed and reject all compromise with “the Zionist entity”. On the other, it reinforces (if only a little) the defensive mindset of the Israeli diehards who see nothing but enemies in the outside world.

In my view, rather than boycotting Israel, we should be doing precisely the opposite: arguing for more trade with both Israel and the Occupied Territories, more cultural and educational exchanges, more tourism and so on.

So, much as I respect the role of the NUJ’s ADM in setting union policy, I have no intention of observing the boycott. Indeed, as I write I have a friend searching out a selection of kosher delicacies in Israel that I hope she will deliver when she gets back to Britain next week. I invite the NUJ executive to discipline me for my flagrant and wilful breach of union policy.

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The current London Review of Books is a very good one, with half-a-dozen must-read articles — one of them an elegaic review of recent books about the Communist Party of Great Britain by the eminent Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, the only prominent intellectual who stuck with the CPGB to the bitter end.

It is a fascinating piece, nowhere more so than when Hobsbawm claims that during the second world war, British communists “would have gone underground if they had had to, as they did on the Continent ..., and organised resistance to the German occupation”. Not in 1940 they wouldn’t, comrade. That was when the Hitler-Stalin pact was in operation. Remember?

Thursday, 1 March 2007

CAMERON IS THE TORIES' KINNOCK

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 2 March 2007

Sometimes even Alastair Campbell gets it right. The old bruiser was up to some new tricks in the Times last week, dispensing advice to the Tories about how to win the next election.

Not that his advice was particularly useful. It amounted to little more than the assertion that David Cameron needs to do a lot more solid policy work if he is to have a hope of emulating Tony Blair’s reinvention of Labour in 1994-97. The Tories are not as far ahead in the opinion polls as they need to be to win next time, the onetime spindoctor went on, and the government under a new prime minister has every chance of winning a fourth term.

I don’t buy all of this — not least because Blair didn’t have to change much policy from Labour’s early-1980s dog-days, for the simple reason that his predecessors, Neil Kinnock and John Smith, had already done it. (Don’t forget that Gordon Brown’s declaration of the end of “tax-and-spend” and Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” soundbite both date from 1992-93, under Smith’s leadership, or that Blair’s abandonment of Clause Four, though obviously important symbolically, changed party policy not a jot.)

But Campbell is on the money when he says that the Cameron Tories are an empty vessel and that — as things stand — they are not well placed to beat a Brown government.

So far, Cameron has played his hand as well as anyone else in his party could have played it. He has done the casual nice-guy routine with some panache (certainly more than Gordon has managed so far) and there’s something about his media image that is attractive. He is saying the right things — from his party’s point of view — about how the Tories have learned from their mistakes, are no longer nasty or extreme, are concerned about poverty and all the rest. He’s bidding for the centre ground, in other words.

But he’s not doing so well as to induce panic. Open-neck-shirt visits to sink estates will not shake off the perception that he is a Etonian toff (as he is). The bike to work followed by the chauffeur was bad. The picture of him posing with the Bullingdon Club at Oxford is potentially disastrous, because it suggests that he has an inner arrogant-aristo arsehole struggling to get out. It should be used relentlessly in Labour propaganda.

And as Campbell says, there isn’t a lot of substance to Tory policy. What would a Tory government do about the big issues with which it would have to deal? All we get on the NHS, education, the environment, Europe, Britain’s relationship with the US and so on is mood music. They’re seriously embarrassed by their yet-to-be-jettisoned voter-unfriendly baggage. In Labour terms, they’re Mandelsonised Kinnock circa 1986.

As for the polls, the Tories are doing well, but not brilliantly.

On the standard “Which party would you vote for if there were a general election tomorrow?” test, the Tories are running at 37 per cent on average, with Labour on 32.5 and the Lib Dems on just under 20. It looks a commanding Tory lead, but even under the new constituency boundaries for the next general election it would be enough only to give the Tories roughly the same number of seats as Labour in a hung parliament, with a massively reduced number of Lib Dem MPs holding the balance of power. Again, it’s Kinnock circa 1986.

Which is another way of saying that opinion polls a long way from a general election don’t necessarily matter. Campbell is again right to point out that the government has had a torrid time for the past six months and that there is every reason to believe its poll fortunes are at or close to their nadir — particularly as there is a change of prime minister in the offing.

OK, so Gordon isn’t exactly inspiring, but he’s a lot better than John Major in 1990 when he replaced Margaret Thatcher — and Major’s succession gave a massive poll bounce to the Tories that carried them through to victory in 1992.

Here, the polls asking people how they would vote if Brown were PM now with Cameron as leader of the opposition need to be taken with a lorry-load of salt. Brown is not PM and has been keeping a low profile sticking to his brief while Blair takes the flak. We simply don’t know either what he’d be like in charge or how voters would respond.

There is plenty that can go wrong for Labour. The leadership and deputy leadership elections have the potential to turn into chaos — the first with no credible candidate but Brown, the second with too many candidates that have nothing to say apart from how proud they are to have served (with minor qualifications). Iraq and loans-for-peerages are not over yet. And then there’s the other stuff...

But as long as the succession is handled competently and hysteria over Iraq subsides — and as long as no one is nicked on loans-for-peerages — Brown should look a fresh enough start. And it needs just a tiny swing to Labour from the current polls for Brown to give Cameron a tonking in 2009 or 2010 and secure a clear majority for Labour. Don’t give up the fight. We’re still in the driving seat.

Thursday, 18 January 2007

THE ONLINE THREAT TO LEFT JOURNALISM

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 19 January 2007

Well, the organ made it to three-score-years-and-ten. Tribune’s 70th birthday came and went the week before last with just a single mention in these pages noting the anniversary.

Not that this is the last you’ll hear of it: the editor and the staff deliberately played down the actual 70th because they’re planning a really big party later in the year after the seasonal affective disorder is out the way. It’s a sensible decision, and I have every confidence they’ll put together a real ball — unlike the real balls-up we managed for the 50th 20 years ago, when the highlight of the partying was one of the most tedious meetings I have ever witnessed, in a freezing Conway Hall.

But landmark birthdays are also times to reflect on what happens next — and here it’s hard to be too optimistic. Tribune certainly deserves not only to survive but to thrive long into the future. But it is going to have to cope with a very hostile climate.

I’m not talking politics here: with Tony Blair giving way to Gordon Brown this year and Labour casting around for ways to renew its programme and electoral appeal after a decade in power, there is a great opportunity for Tribune to play a big part in setting the political agenda. The problem is rather that the economics of small-circulation left-wing print periodical publishing are becoming ever more precarious.

The big distributors and wholesalers have increasingly decided in recent years that they don’t want the bother of handling minnows that make them little or no money — which has had the effect of squeezing Tribune’s newstrade sales and forcing it into ever-greater reliance on subscriptions. But that's old stuff: a far bigger challenge is posed by the internet — which is steadily undermining the habit of paying for news and opinion, particularly among young people, and thereby threatening the very existence of an independent left press.

The economics of running a small-circulation print periodical are simple. You have to get enough revenue from newstrade sales, subscriptions, advertising and fundraising to cover the costs of printing, postage, staff, premises, equipment, promotion campaigns and so forth. Because small circulation means low advertising rates (unless you can persuade would-be advertisers that most of your readers are very rich), most income has to come from newstrade sales, subs and fundraising. OK, it’s hard to get it right, and unless you have a rich benefactor — which Tribune has had at various points in its history but doesn’t have now — it can be a real struggle. With a magazine that’s worth reading and a bit of luck, however, you can muddle through.

The big question is how long this will remain the case. Ten years ago, it was easy enough to dismiss as scare-mongers those pundits who said that the internet would soon render the newspaper and the magazine obsolete. Today, as readers turn from dead trees to online, with nearly every newspaper and many magazines losing circulation — some of them at white-knuckle-ride rates — the scenario looks a lot less implausible. All the major players are investing heavily in websites, nervously hoping that increased online advertising revenue at least makes up for lost income from sales and advertising as a result of declining circulation.

The headache facing all but the publishers of specialised commercial and financial news is that people won’t pay for online subscriptions or even for one-off access: they expect the internet to be free. But at least the big boys will get a piece of the cake as advertising migrates online, as it has begun to do. If you’re almost completely reliant on sales and subs for your income flow, you lose your main sources of income as readers abandon print for online.

This isn’t so much of a problem if your print publication is published as a hobby, relying entirely on voluntary labour, with income from subs and sales going to pay the printer’s bill, postage and a few odds and ends: you can simply drop print publication when it becomes unsustainable and publish solely online. The great thing about the internet for anyone who wants to get the message out is that it slashes production, distribution and promotion costs. Indeed, once you’ve got your website designed and hosted, there’s no cost equivalent to the printer’s or postal bills.

But if you’ve got wages to pay — as you must have if you are publishing with any regularity or making any attempt to break news stories, even if, like Tribune, you never or rarely pay for features — the prospect of losing sales and subs, in the absence of substantial ad revenue, is no fun at all.

Which is not to proclaim that the end is nigh — but it is to make it clear that it’s up to you as readers to ensure that Tribune survives, by continuing to subscribe and getting others to do the same. If you want serious left journalism, it cannot be free at the point of use.