Thursday 27 September 2007

Labour's Conference Now Little More Than a Trade Fair.

This article by me appears in today's Guardian Comment is Free and sums up my experience of the Labour Party Conference this year.

Business, as usual
Labour 07: This year's event proves it: the moneylenders really have taken over the temple.

Under the strapline "Our conference can provide an exciting place to do business", there was a revealing pie chart in the Labour party's conference guide that gave a breakdown of who now attends the annual gathering.

It is: 10% elected representatives, 20% media, 30% Labour party delegates and visitors, and - top of the list - 40% from the commercial and corporate sector.

So when Gordon Brown and his ministers received their standing ovations, the largest group clapping was the companies looking forward to doing business with this government.

Now that biblical references are de rigueur in the party, it seemed to many that the moneylenders really had taken over the temple.

The rule changes bounced through the conference this week removing the right of Labour members to determine the party's policies at the conference mean the event is now little more than a trade fair and media platform for speeches from the leader and ministers.

And it takes a remarkable feat of ingratiating contortion to consider Gordon Brown's first leader's speech as setting "a new tone" and offering "the possibility of a different kind of Labour government", as Jon Cruddas and others have claimed.

While warm words of praise were bestowed on the NHS and public servants, outside in the real world we learned that in order to save the budgets of some primary care trusts, Bupa was to vet whether patients should or should not receive the treatment recommended by their consultants. Bupa will be paid from the savings made by preventing operations.

Similarly, at an almost surreal fringe meeting at the conference, we heard from the government's adviser on welfare reform, the obviously suitably qualified venture capitalist David Freud, that a similar principle was to be applied to getting people off benefit and into work. While 40,000 jobs are to be cut at the Department for Work and Pensions, private sector companies are to be given the role of forcing the long-term unemployed into work. The firms will make their profits from the benefits saved.

Meanwhile, despite the declaration of a new social housing programme, behind the scenes immense pressure was being applied to delegates to ensure that what was possibly the last resolution ever to be debated at a Labour party conference actually reversed existing conference policy, which calls for councils to be treated fairly in the distribution of resources for building houses.

On the morning we hear of the children of eastern European migrants being racially abused on our streets, how does Gordon Brown's slogan of "British jobs for British workers" sit with those urging "a more positive message on migration"?

Playing tactical games over the timing of the election also reflects an approach to politics where policies are too often determined for party advantage, and even the stability of the government is risked for the same reason.

Caution suggests current poll leads result more from a combined sense of relief at Blair going and the rejection of an incompetent, passé alternative than they do from a belief in the government being committed to real change. John Major and 1992 come to mind.

The scenes of Buddhist monks in Burma losing their lives in a struggle for democracy are a stark reminder that democratic politics should be about more than developing subtler forms of spin and party game-playing.

Saturday 22 September 2007

Windfall Tax the Speculators Profiteering from Northern Rock

Today I called upon the Prime Minister to impose an immediate windfall tax on speculators profiteering from the Northern Rock crisis and to launch a public inquiry as it is revealed that speculators made huge gains in profiteering from the crisis and that Northern Rock had set up “Granite Companies” to put the protection of City financiers before the protection of its customers.

The whole Northern Rock saga stinks to high heaven. It is estimated city traders have made £1billion in profits from “bear raids” on Northern Rock. Added to this the renowned tax expert, Richard Murphy from Tax Research, has revealed that Northern Rock had established what it sarcastically called “Granite” Companies in which funds were placed to ensure that in the event of any financial turbulence the City would be protected ahead of Northern Rock’s own customers. Plus we have today’s exposure that the Rock’s board has paid itself £30 million over the last five years. This all adds up to the need for an immediate windfall tax on the speculators profiteering from this crisis and for a full and independent inquiry into the role of the Government, Bank of England and FSA in turning a blind eye to city excesses for so long.

Friday 21 September 2007

Remember the members

From Comment is Free:

I read Peter Hain's article yesterday on Cif and thought "God has it really come to this!" I admit to feeling anger but more so an immense personal sadness that someone who was such a fine radical as Peter had come to resort to such self-serving sophistry. Arthur Koestler's novel Darkness at Noon came to mind. The next steps on from this craven performance of justifying the leader's every contortion are confessions of guilt for crimes against the party and show trials.

Why such anger? Well, because so much is at stake - the last vestiges of democracy in a once great party that was founded to give democratic voice to those that were powerless and had no voice.

It may sound corny in a cynical age but literally generations of our people have given much of their lives to establishing and cherishing the Labour party because they believed what the party told them when they joined. When they received their party card every member, no matter how humble a position they held in the party, gained the right to attend their local party or trade union branch and seek to convince their fellow members to adopt a particular policy. If successful this policy could be pursued all the way to the party's annual conference with the aim of influencing the agenda of Labour in government.

Of course this process can look messy and at times is rumbustious, which appears to offend Peter Hain's sensibilities, but that is what healthy democracy looks like whether it's in the House of Commons or the conference hall.

Gordon Brown's proposals, set out in his Orwellian-titled document Extending and Renewing Democracy, remove this basic right of party members and trade unionists at party conference to determine the party's policy position on key issues of the day. Instead the delegates attending the conference will only be allowed to raise issues to be referred for subsequent consideration by the arcane centrally controlled structures of party policy forums, commissions and working parties.

Why is this being proposed? Partly it stems from a statement Gordon Brown made to trade union leaders last year when discussions were taking place over the need for legislation on trade union rights. At that stage it was made clear that if there was no movement by the government, the campaign for the restoration of basic trade union rights would inevitably spill onto to the floor of Labour party conference. Worryingly to some of us at the time, Gordon Brown responded by saying that under his leadership we can't have Labour party conference defeating a Labour leader in office on policy issues.

So this is not about in Peter Hain's consultancy-speak "engaging with the challenges that a responsible party of government must resolve" or "New Politics". It is straightforwardly the old question whether a Labour leader is accountable to the Labour party.

In recent years, one of the reasons for the exodus of members from the Labour party has been the implementation of policies to which many party members have not only been opposed but also have had no valid opportunity to have a say over and have been unable to hold the Labour leadership to account.

The ability of Labour party conference to decide by resolution the policy of the party on a number of key questions meant that at least there still remained some opportunity for members to participate in a process of direct democracy.

If allowed, democracy does actually work. The message to Gordon Brown is give democracy a chance and trust our members. Instead of trying to bounce the party into adopting these proposals next week when there has been virtually no time for a realistic consultation, I urge him to compromise and allow a proper consultation, a thorough debate and democratic decision making process, bringing a real democratic reform programme to next year's conference which will hold the party together. Please don't use this issue as some publicity stunt "Clause 4" moment.

If Gordon Brown obstinately refuses this compromise and forces his proposals through, could the last Labour party delegate leaving the Bournemouth conference hall turn off the lights please, they will be the lights of democracy.

Sunday 16 September 2007

Warnings on Debt by the Left were Ignored.

Three years ago I set up the Left Economic Advisory Panel,(LEAP), bringing together a group of socialist economists, accountants and practitioners to provide analysis for the Left on the state of the economy and advice on both immediate and long term economic policy. It serves as a left alternative to the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee but examines a much wider range of objectives and consequences of economic policy and looks to the longer term.

LEAP publishes a set of analytical papers twice a year, under the title Red Papers; first prior to the Autumn budget statement and then immediately prior to the budget in the Spring.

Now that the Northern Rock meltdown has prompted a review of Gordon Brown's management of the economy and in particular his approach to allowing the unfettered operation of the finance sector I would urge a look at the paper published by LEAP as part of the Red Papers in March last year written by Tanya Adams, a City economist. You can find them on the Labour Representation Committee's website.

Adams' paper is entitled "Binge Borrowing - an unhealthy economic diet." To quote the paper, it said " The Chancellor might do well to reflect on the inherently unstable dynamics of the UK economy. Since New Labour came to power the so-called growth miracle has been fuelled by a relentless rise in personal debt levels.......relying on excessive personal sector borrowing as a major driver of economic growth creates the potential for all sorts of stresses and strains further down the line .....No one can guarantee that such a wanton and reckless increase in the country's debt burden may not trigger a relapse at some point in the next two to three years. The UK may yet pay a heavy price for an economic policy that has increased the risks posed by the accumulation of excessive debt."

LEAP meets again this month and will be publishing its alternative Autumn analysis. Watch this space. I will make sure we send a copy of LEAP's Red Papers this year to Alistair Darling. He will need them.

Saturday 15 September 2007

To Understand Northern Rock Go and See Odet's play "Awake and Sing"

Last night I went to see Clifford Odet's play "Awake and Sing". Odet was a twentieth century American playwright, born in the early 1900s and died of cancer in 1963. He was a socialist and at one time a card carrying communist, which resulted in him being hauled before McCarthy's UnAmerican Activities Commiittee. As a member of the pioneering theatre collective known as "The Group" he developed his writing talent and scripted other memorable plays such as "Waiting for Lefty."

Set in the 1930s Depression the play is both humourous yet deeply moving, telling the story of a working class Jewish family struggling to survive the grinding poverty and insecurity inflicted on them. We witness the strain placed upon their relationships by their plight but also their enduring humanity, self sacrifice and determination to win through.

The irony of watching a play set in the Depression was not lost on many in the audience on the day queues were forming outside Northern Rock offices as investors feared for their savings. The play is at the Almeida theatre in Islington, not far from Karl Marx's old drinking haunts. Alive today, Engels woould have been buying his mate Karl a few pints of porter to celebrate his theory of the inherent instability of capitalism being proved accurate once again.

The significance of staging Odet's play now is not just the timeliness of its subject. Odet was writing at a time of immense upheaval and change in the world, when new social forces were coming onto the scene. He was one of a wave of artists, writers, economists, social theorists and political activists who played a critical role in not only describing the new world they were experiencing but also explaining it and above all else motivating people, giving them confidence, to change it.

Odet and many of his progressive contemporaries gave people the belief that by reaching into their shared humanity they could not only cope with what the world threw at them but could change the world itself. They could do so by solidarity. A simple message that we can deal with this together.

The advent of globalisation over the last 30 years means that we are in a similar period of immense and dramatic change. Just as the artists, writers, theorists and activists emerged in the 1930s to describe and explain this change so today we are witnessing the beginnings of this reinterpretation of the world and the blossoming of campaigns, social movements and artistic initiatives to give people hope.

Tuesday 11 September 2007

Brown Avoids at the TUC the Central Question of Trade Union Freedom BIll

I didn't witness Gordon Brown's speech to the TUC but heard it on the radio on my way down to the Congress in Brighton. I read it in detail afterwards because I thought I must have missed bits of the speech as a result of radio editting. But no, I hadn't missed anything. By all accounts, to quote Tony Woodley, it was "the most uninspiring speech in years." Others went further in expressing their disappointment in the speech.

People weren't bothered about Brown's rhetorical style. Blair became a superb orator but it was the content of his speeches that was the problem. With Brown there was neither style nor content to inspire TUC delegates. Worse, what was increasingly obvious to even those trade union general secretaries who had manoeuvred their unions into backing Brown for the Labour leadership, was that Brown's speech was vacuous when it came to addressing the real world issues facing the 6 million members they are supposed to represent.

There was no mention of the Trade Union Freedom Bill supported unanimously by the TUC and which is coming before Parliament on 19 October. Tuc delegates know that on the changes in legislation thrown as sops to the TUC on agency workers Brown had been working behind the scenes to render unworkable and that his proposed reforms on anti discrimination were actually taking us backwards.

There was understandable anger and dismay not only at his refusal to offer any way out on public sector pay but also that whilst he was demanding pay discipline for public sector workers he failed to utter a word of condemnation of the obscene bonuses in the city and the grotesque inequality in pay between many private sector chief executives and the average pay of their workers.

Instead delegates received the same lecture from Gordon Brown on globalisation that we have heard in virtually every speech from him for the last five years at least. The speech left the impression of a Prime Minister certainly adrift from the trade union movement but also distant from the day to day experience of life in the real world by most ordinary people.

Some media commentators have referred to the prospect of another "winter of discontent" this year as occurred in 1978 with widespread public sector strikes and disputes. Whatever the outcome of the various public sector union pay campaigns Gordon Brown needs to be concerned about another type of winter of discontent. It is the type of ongoing underlying discontent amongst public and private sector workers who feel that they are working long hours under stressful conditions just financially to keep their head above the water. It is a low morale economy with people feeling totally disempowered, undervalued and at times downright exploited at work, witnessing their companies making on average 16% profit gains over the last year whilst average pay has increased only 3.5%, some are having pay cuts forced upon them and chief executive pay under New Labour has rocketted nearly 300%.

This climate of discontent relates directly to the feeling of powerlessness by employees at work because of the one issue Gordon Brown deliberately avoided in his speech, i.e. the lack of a basic code of trade union rights and rights at work in this country ten years after the election of a Labour government. Making sure Labour MPs turn up to Parliament on 19th October and vote for the Trade Union Freedom Bill is one way of forcing the Government to address the key question avoided by the Prime Minister yesterday.

Sunday 9 September 2007

The Trade Unions' Political Strategy needs to Get Real.

With a recent change of Prime Minister and the prospect of a general election in 18 months at the latest if not before, now is as good a time as any for the trade union movement to review its political strategy. To put it bluntly in one of Tony Woodleys phrases its time to wake up and smell the coffee

Many trade unions and the TUC seem to be continuing to operating under an illusion about the way the political system currently operates. The old constitutional theories about how political parties operate and how governments, particularly Labour governments, govern have gone out the window under New Labour.

In the past political parties brought together their supporters to debate, discuss and decide the policies which were then drafted into a manifesto and placed before the electorate. If there was sufficient support for the policies and the party was elected, new ministers would arrive into office with civil servants waiting with advice on how to implement the policy programme. The battle for an incoming Labour government was with the vested interests of the status quo which had largely permeated government and all its departments.

Trade unions need to forget this archaeological exhibit of constitutional theory. The modern reality is that policy may still be debated within the Labour party but this policy debate and even decision making is rarely translated into the manifesto which is drafted internally by the Prime Minister’s closest aides. Once in office ministers responsible for policy implementation are now surrounded by a policy network dominated by advisers drawn from or even directly representing private sector interests. Dominating centralised control means that no policy which contradicts the core ideology of the government is allowed to surface.

The core ideology is shared by both main political parties. That is why Gordon Brown has found it so easy to appoint Tories to be part of his government. Both parties share a neo liberal ideology which believes that the market must be given free reign and as a result will produce the optimum solution in virtually every instance. Consequently both share an evangelical zeal for flexible labour, privatisation, low corporate taxation and corporate driven globalisation.

Trade unions and the TUC need to wake up to the fact that they are just not part of this structure of government policy formulation and implementation any more under New Labour. Occasional delegations of trade union general secretaries to the Prime Minister and to individual ministers resemble in reality little more than shouting through Number 10s letter box and peeking through its key hole. Ministerial visits and speeches to trade union conferences are viewed by ministers as some sort of tiresome atavistic rituals that have to be endured.

The TUC and some trade union general secretaries mistake vague, at times almost mystical, policy statements and minor offerings of changes in policy by the Prime Minister and other ministers as signs of a genuine relationship that reflects real trade union influence. In reality they are little more that patronising pats on the head to box off any effective mobilisation of alliances within our movement aimed at having a real effect on policy. They enable those union leaders who want to be bought off for a quiet life, those that enjoy the status of wandering the corridors of power, and those who want to kid themselves that they are having some influence, to be easily bought.

In the real world where government policy has changed it has mostly been as a result of change being forced upon it by hard realities within our society, external influences and external campaigns. Rarely has it come from trade union influence and even where deals have apparently been negotiated, like the Warwick agreement, most are generally ignored or only implemented if on the government agenda anyway.

The lessons are fairly obvious for us.

First, trade unions need to ensure that what limited opportunities for influencing policy debate within the Labour party still exist are maintained by rejecting at this year’s Labour Party conference the imposition of the Brown proposals to undermine Labour Party conference policy making powers.

Second we mobilise immediately a new alliance across the unions, constituency Labour Parties, affiliates and linking with supporters within the Parliamentary Labour Party to reassert democracy within the Labour Party at every level.

Third, we recognise that on issue after issue large sections of our community are increasingly losing confidence in the Parliamentary system of government where they see no difference between the political parties which are party to a neo liberal political consensus. Instead they are forming extra parliamentary social movements to campaign on issues like climate change, asylum, developing world poverty and liberation, inequality, and privatisation. These movements are increasingly becoming effective at changing societal attitudes to forcing governments and political parties to address issues. Linking to these emerging social movements by supporting and becoming active participants in their campaigns would enable trade union movement to be much more effective in creating a climate of influence no government can ignore than continuing to delude ourselves about the effectiveness of Prime Ministerial speeches to Congress or tea with ministers.

Friday 7 September 2007

Government Attempt To Fix Nuclear Consultation Augurs Badly for Imminent Heathrow Runway Consultation.

Today's reports that the leading environment groups, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, WWF and Green Alliance, are withdrawing from the Government's consultation on the future of nuclear power because of government attempts to fix the consultation process augurs extremely basdly for the imminent consultation on the expansion of Heathrow airport.

The Government's aviation white paper two years ago concluded that a third runway at Heathrow could only go ahead if the environmental problems associated with such a development could be overcome, in particular air pollution and increased noise. Since then the British Airports Authority has added the demand for a 6th terminal to the proposal for a third runway. The Climate Change Camp this summer caught the imagination of the country and even of the wider world in drawing attention to the impact of allowing this aviation expansion on climate change.

Reports appeared in the media only last month of BAA being allowed to interfere in the supposedly independent processes the Government had set up to assess the environmental impact of expansion at Heathrow. In the next few weeks the Government is expected to publish its consultation paper setting out options for consultation on proposals designed to overcome the environmental damage caused by a new runnway and new terminal.

The attempt by the Government to influence the consultation on nuclear powere does not bode well for the independence and integrity of the prospective consulation on aviation. Just as on the nuclear issue Gordon Brown has already pre-empted the consultation on aviation by expressing his preference for Heathrow expansion.

The Climate Camp was a warning to politicians of all the major political parties which have been dominated by the influence of the aviation industry. If the formal political process fails them people will take the view that direct action is the only option.

Wednesday 5 September 2007

Slavery and Brutality Still Exist and They are in a Town Near You.

Recently I was asked to support the launch of a book on modern day slavery in Britain. The book depicts the heartrending experiences of a number of people who are the victims of our current asylum policies; human beings who the system has made slaves and has made vulnerable to levels of physical and mental brutality which Wilberforce and the Victorian anti slave camapigners would recognise.

I was pleased to be asked because the book makes a significant contribution to exposing the way in which our society allows many of our fellow human beings to be treated within our community. It is also an eloquent, moving and forceful cry for action.

The book is "Enslaved:The New British Slavery" by Rahila Gupta. Today Rahila achieved a major breakthrough in gaining extracts from the book published in the Guardian's Society section.

Campaigners and authors like Rahila deserve all our thanks for the work they undertake to bear witness to the brutal treatment meted out to some of the most vulnerable members of our society. They put on stark display what many politicians and commentators determinedly insist on ignoring.

For those of us who have to deal with the victims of the asylum system on almost a daily basis Rahila has done us all a great service.

Let me give you just yesterday's example in my constituency office. A young woman we had been assisting some months ago came to us, ill, hungry and so tired she was dead on her feet. She came to this country some years ago as a minor and was taken into care. She was designated an "unacompanied asylum seeker" and given temporary leave to remain in Britain. After leaving care she was at first put into a private rented flat on her own but then told that under the Government's asylum policies she was to be dispersed to the Midlands where she knew no one.

She came to us when she was told to at short notice to pack up her belongings and leave her accomodation to be taken to the Midlands. Even to the layperson it is fairly obvious that she has mental health problems and exhibits all the symptoms of chronic depression and stress. We did all we could to get some support for her in the place they were moving her to.

Although she has been in this country some years she has now been told that her application for asylum has been refused and all legal rights of appeal have been exhausted. As a result she has lost all physical means of support from the state, including accomodation.

What does she do? She comes back to the only area she really knows in this country and the only place she has anyone she actually knows. Without financial support, terrified of going back to her country of origin, Eritrea, frightened of being picked up by Immigraton Officers to face detention and deportation, her only option is to sleep rough and borrow or beg for assistance.

This young woman is just another victim of the grotesque inhumanity of our asylum laws and of the corporate driven globalisation which creates such a scale of inequality and exploitation across our globe.

So I am honoured to be asked to take part in the launch of Rahila's book, along with Teresa Hayter from "No One is Illegal" and speakers from Southall Black Sisters. The launch takes place on 19th September at the Human Rights Action Centre, 17-25 New Inn Yard, EC2. Try and come along, but also try and get a copy of the book. It's published by Portobello Books.

Tuesday 4 September 2007

Getting Rid of the Guns Begins at Home with Britain's Arms Industry.

In the light of the recent series of tragic gun deaths numerous media commentators and politicians of all political parties have expressed their anxieties about the ease of access to weapons in our society and condemned the fact that these weapons are now more available than ever. This month these concerned citizens have a real opportunity of making a direct contribution to the campaign which has effectively mobilised for decades against the root source of these weapons.

On Tuesday 11th September the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) is organising a peaceful demonstration against the DSEi arms fair being held at the ExCel exhibition centre in East London, assemble at 11am at Plaistow Park.

The DSEi arms fair is one of the largest arms fair in the world and is organised every two years in London with the full support of the Government. Arms dealers and buyers come from all over the world to shop for weapons, ranging from small arms to fighter jets, to battleships. These weapons will contribute to the armed violence which kills 500,000 people every year, one person every minute. It is estimated that at least 80-90% of all illegal small arms start in state sanctioned arms trade. As CAAT points out, it is an irony that this arms fair is being held in Newham where gun crime has become an increasing problem in recent years with many victims under 20.

CAAT has been an extremely successful campaign.This year its successes include persuading Reed Elsevier, the company organising arms fairs, to sell off its arms fair operation. In addition the campaign has played the key role in pushing the Government into announcing in July that its Defence Export Services Organisation is to shut by the end of the year. This is the body which on behalf of the Government promotes and supports arms sales by the arms industry in Britain.

So supporting CAAT is one of the most effective ways of tackling gun crime and preventing more people being brutally killed by guns and other weapons both in Britain and across the world.

I have always supported the work of CAAT and used its research but through lethargy never made the effort to actually join. So today I am sending off my cheque and application form to join to support its work. If all those media pundits and politicians who have recently pronounced on gun crime are serious about tackling this issue there can be no better way than supporting CAAT and email to

Monday 3 September 2007

Brown Interview, Not in the Real World, Retreat from Basra.

This morning in his interview on BBC Gordon Brown gave the impression of someone living in a different world from the rest of us. Defending the international markets, ignoring the prospects of a potential world economic downturn and refusing to condemn the grotesque greed exhibited by the recent huge city bonus payouts demonstrated a politician living in a political bubble of electoral tactics rather than appreciating the real threats of climate change, world economic and political instability and growing inequality. Nothing better illustrated this divergence from the real world than his references to Iraq.

Gordon Brown and the Downing Street spin machine are desperately trying to present last night's evacuation of 500 British troops from Basra Palace as part of a planned process of withdrawal from Iraq.

Let's be absolutely clear. The British troops are being drawn back to the base at the airport because it became increasingly impossible to sustain them in central Basra in the face of continuous attacks by insurgents as they lay siege to the British positions. As one Labour member of the Defence Select Commiittee put it, the Palace could only be kept supplied by the British by "nightly suicide missions."

By any military standards this withdrawal is a humiliating defeat for those politicians, including Gordon Brown and his cabinet colleagues, and the military that dragged our country into Bush's invasion of Iraq without due regard to the consequences for both the Iraqi people and serving British troops. It should not be forgotten that the price of their arrogant folly has so far been the lives of 160 British personnel and at least 650,000 Iraqis. When questioned about the next stage of his policy for Iraq, instead of acknowledging that the only option is urgent withdrawal altogether Brown went into a bizarre promulgation of the need for an economic development forum in the area as though he was dealing with the need for economic development in the North East of England and not in a country that to most observers and the Iraqi people themselves is little short of experiencing a civil war.

Get real Mr Brown. Stop pretending that this is anything other than a retreat and withdraw the troops now altogether.