Saturday 25 July 2009

"Open Left"; How dare they call themselves Left?

The Guardian's Comment is Free website asked me to comment on the Purnell/Cruddas Demos "Open Left" exercise. I wrote this article on Friday after we heard the Norwich North result. I had in mind the work that Ian Gibson had put in in trying to prevent New Labour bringing in tuiton fees. Just one of the New Labour policies that has contributed to undermining our support.

If the Norwich North byelection result tells us anything it is that it's time to tell it straight about what and who has brought us to a situation where the Labour party gets hammered in a seat where it should come safely home, and which has clearly opened the door to a Tory government.

So in that spirit of telling it like it is let me say that my first reaction to James Purnell's Demos Open Left project was how dare they bloody well use the term "left".

This is about the fourth or fifth, (I lost count some time ago), attempt by former New Labour apparatchiks to try and reinvent themselves. We have had former Blair/Brown insider advisers Neal Lawson and Jon Cruddas with Compass, Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn with 2020 Vision, and now James Purnell and Jon Cruddas with Demos's Open Left.

No matter how clever the project's title, how well its re-launch statements are drafted and how smart its website, none of them can escape from the objective history of the part they played in creating and supporting the reactionary, political deviation that was New Labour, a political project that has brought the Labour party to the edge of extinction.

Between them all they have either been the architects of, the advisers to, the parliamentary lobby fodder in support of or the ministerial implementers of policies which have left at least half a million innocent people dead in Iraq, doubled the number of homeless families in Britain, privatised more public sector jobs than Thatcher and Major put together, undermined long-cherished basic civil liberties and forced through so brutal an attack on the recipients of welfare benefits that even the Thatcher government refused to implement.

Quoting past Labour party theoreticians, intellectualising justifications for betrayal in the language of an A-level sociology paper, and speaking left while voting right will not wash off the blood of the murdered Iraqis or stem the tears of a single parent forced off benefits or help explain to the unemployed person how they can live on £65-a-week jobseeker's allowance.

Some among this crew realised sooner than others that the only hope for their future political careers was to jump ship from New Labour and to rebrand themselves on the left. They have been assisted by parts of the media that are implicated in delivering the Labour party and the country up to Blair, Brown and Mandelson, and who are also trying to distance themselves from the creature they helped create.

Asked what was the difference between the left and right, Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio replied that the left always seeks greater equality and the right always produces greater inequality. New Labour has created a society scarred by inequality, more unequal than at any time since the second world war.

The debate about the future of progressive advance in this country cannot be left in the hands of the guilty people who pursued the policies that inflicted this inequality on our community. They deserve to be swept away.

Instead, a progressive future is being debated and determined by others, especially those forging their ideas while taking action. The real debate about a progressive future is among the workers occupying the Vestas factory, among the blacklisted workers, among the cleaners fighting for a living wage, among the climate campers who will take the debate to the streets of the City of London in August, and among those Labour party members, trade unionists and others on the left whose credibility has not been undermined by association with the degenerate policies of New Labour.

Friday 24 July 2009

Norwich North; A Self Inflicted Political Disaster

This is the press release I put out on the announcement of the Norwich North result.

Shocking result for Labour in unnecessary by-election, says McDonnell

Labour has been defeated in the Norwich North by-election caused by the barring of former Labour MP Ian Gibson from standing at the next election.

John McDonnell MP, LRC Chair, said:

"What is clear is that the Brown / Mandelson stratgey is not working. However hard they spin it this is a shocking result for Labour.

"The first thing that Gordon Brown and the Labour Party NEC should do is to apologise to Ian Gibson and his family, the people of Norwich, and the Labour Party members nationwide for robbing them of a decent, hard-working, principled MP, who was greatly respected in his local area.

"If we are going to learn anything from this defeat, the Prime Minister has to stop obeying the diktats of Peter Mandelson and start listening to the people."

Tuesday 21 July 2009

Support the Vestas Workers' Occupation

I was approached to support the campaign to save the jobs and the operation at the Vesta wind turbine company. I tabled the following Early Day Motion in Parliament on Thursday and have now sent a message of solidarity to the workers occupying their factory. It is critical that we build solidarity with this vitally important campaign. These workers are at the forefront of the struggle to save their jobas and our planet.

EDM 1925 Vesta

That this House expresses its concern that, at the very time when the Government is launching its drive for developing renewable energy sources in the UK, the Vestas company, specialising in renewable energy plant, is shedding 600 jobs and is closing; and calls on the Government to intervene as a matter of urgency to ensure the future of the Vestas operation and the protection of jobs.

Milburn Report on Social Mobility Just Another Cop Out From Addressing Inequality.

After reading the briefings in the media on the report to be launched today by Alan Milburn it is clear that it is just another cop out.

The report is merely a statement of the blindingly obvious and a complete cop out of tackling the real issue of the growing inequality in our society. We know already that private schools with their massive resources are better crammers to get their privileged students into universities and that middle class parents are able to subsidise their children through the unpaid work needed to enter professions like the law and journalism. The lack of social mobility is just a symptom of the grotesque inequality gap in our society which New Labour ministers like Alan Milburn caused to widen under their watch.

Friday 17 July 2009

May Day Rally

A friend sent me this film of this year's May Day rally in Trafalgar Square. Tony Been's speech is so relevant to what we are now facing.

Parliamentary Debate on Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan has claimed more lives of British soldiers this week. This terrible loss of life prompted a debate in Parliament today (Thursday). The debate focused on an at times unseemly tussle between the political parties on whether the Government had provided sufficient support in terms of troops and equipment to fight this war. I spoke in the debate to express my distress at the loss of so many young lives and my view that this war was unnecessary, unwinnable and ill-judged.

See a video of my contribution to the debate on my Parliamentary/constituency website

This is the text of my speech. With only 6 minutes allowed to speak I tried to get across not very well a sense of the tragic futility of this war.

Commons Speech

As a parent, I find it extremely distressing to see photographs of the young men who have died in the conflict in Afghanistan. Many are so young: I find it hard to come to terms with the death of an 18-year-old barely out of school.

Parents and families have taken solace from the fact that their sons have given their lives courageously in the service of this country, and I share that view wholeheartedly. When those young men signed up for military service, they signed up to the compact under which they pledged their lives to the service of this country. However, there are two sides to that compact; we are the other side. We pledge to do all that we can to keep them out of harm's way, and to ensure that they are treated properly when injured and that their families are cherished if they sacrifice their lives. Many statements have been made today about the way in which we are fulfilling that compact, and it is important that the Government consider those messages seriously.

Another element of that compact is that we do not send our young men into unnecessary and ill-judged wars that cannot be won. I believe that the Government have failed that critical element of the military compact. This is an unnecessary and ill-judged war that cannot be won. After eight years, it is becoming increasingly difficult to answer the question, "Why do we need this war?" It was a reaction to 9/11, started with a failed bombing campaign and led inevitably to invasion. The objective was to destroy al-Qaeda, but inevitably when the bombing strategy failed and we moved to invasion, we discovered what leaders of the British empire discovered in the 19th century and what the Russian's discovered in the 20th century—that it is impossible to fight a successful war in this terrain. I must add that all those invasions claimed the consent of the people.

I believe that the strategy of destroying al-Qaeda flies in the face of all that we know and understand about modern terrorism, which does not need a fixed territorial base. As we have discovered, modern-day terrorists can be based as much in Leeds as in the mountains of Afghanistan itself. The attempts to evict al-Qaeda from Afghanistan have simply led to its wider dispersal across Pakistan, Somalia and terrorist cells deeper into western Europe. If the war aim was to destroy or remove the Taliban because they harbour al-Qaeda, it completely underestimated, as hon. Members have said, the complexity of the relationships within the Taliban and the scale and depth of support for them in the region, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

If the objective of the war was to tackle terrorism associated with al-Qaeda, a more effective alternative would have been to focus on states' policing role in gaining intelligence on terrorist organisations and activities and in intervening to prevent terrorist strikes. As important is to negotiate with elements that might be attracted to support or harbour terrorists, to divide them wherever possible and to ensure that we gain some purchase on negotiating opportunities with the Taliban. Of course, an effective anti-terrorist strategy must ensure that no action is taken that mobilises support for terrorism, and must win the hearts and minds of potential recruits by addressing grievances. Far from addressing such a strategy, the war in Afghanistan is using resources on military action that should be used in the policing and prevention of terrorism. Far from isolating the Taliban, it has spread their influence into Pakistan, and far from dividing them, it has united Taliban elements into a cohesive fighting force. Far from winning hearts and minds, the war, as in Iraq, has become a rallying symbol for terrorist recruitment.

A tragedy is being played out in Afghanistan, and in our society too. The argument that we are tackling the drugs problem has been undermined today. Afghanistan is now the drug capital of the world. There is the argument that we are installing a democratic Government, but, as has been explained today, that Government is corrupt and considered illegitimate even by their own people—it is a Government of warlords oppressing their own people. As my hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said, the argument about the oppression of women has been undermined by women in Afghanistan demonstrating the oppression that they say has actually been worse than under the Taliban.

We need to address this tragedy: the lives being lost, the families being destroyed, the immense human suffering. At some stage, the Government will have to face up to the need to negotiate a withdrawal. We need to request that other regional powers come to our aid in negotiating with all parties, including the Taliban, a constitutional settlement for the long-term future of Afghanistan. The strategy must involve conflict resolution, bring people together, and recognise their grievances and why they have taken up arms, as they see it, to protect their own country. It is also about developing an alternative terrorism strategy involving intelligence, policing and ensuring respect for the grievances that lead people to take up terrorist activity. The sooner we come to terms with that, the sooner we can end the suffering of the British and Afghani families who have been drawn into this tragic and desperate war.

Wednesday 8 July 2009

Who pays for this crisis?

The calls for pay cuts and cuts in spending on public services prompted me to write the following article for the Morning Star today.

In the last major economic depression in the 1930s, a Labour government fell because it decided that the cure for the latest crisis of capitalism was to cut public spending - in particular, to cut benefits to the unemployed.

A Labour prime minister and his main ministerial allies accepted wholeheartedly the economic orthodoxy of the time that public expenditure had to be reined in to stabilise the markets.

Working people, living at best on subsistence incomes but more often on the edge of destitution, were told that the country couldn't afford to pay them decent wages, house them, educate their children or treat their sick.

Labour ministers who stayed in office in the national government were applauded by their Conservative colleagues and the press for their statesmanship in telling their working-class supporters that they had to accept wage cuts and longer hours for the sake of the economy. These ministers were lauded for their patriotism in putting the interests of the country before the interests of their class.

The consequence of this acquiescence by a Labour government was a level of unemployment that impoverished millions of people in Britain and many millions more across the globe.

Over the last three months the same consensus has emerged across the three main political parties and within the mainstream media. In the interests of the country, wages must be cut, working hours increased, public expenditure must be massively reduced and there has even been a call to increase the retirement age to 70.

In effect the difference between the parties is not the direction of political travel but the depth and speed of cutting wages and public spending.

Having dabbled with a bit of last-minute panic Keynesianism as the scale of the latest crisis began to unfold, the government has now budgeted for a £20 billion programme of cuts and privatisation, is introducing workfare in its Welfare Reform Bill and is attempting to introduce by the back door a public-sector pay freeze and, eventually, an overall strategy of pay cuts.

The usual alliance of big-business associations, the City and media commentators is urging the government to behave "responsibly" and bring forward an even larger-scale programme of public spending cuts.

The Telegraph's right-wing columnist Matthew d'Ancona has praised elements in the Labour Party around the Compass group for calling for austerity measures. Civil servants are reported to be preparing a "doomsday" plan for 20 per cent cuts in public services.

With unemployment rising rapidly and faced with a constant media propaganda barrage, some people are understandably falling for the line that the country can't afford decent wages and public services. It's the same old line they gave out in the '30s and in every economic downturn since.

Others are looking for scapegoats and the fascists are still around, just as they were in the 1930s, to exploit these fears and confusions.

Occasionally the realities of the situation peep through and show what is needed.

Just as the collapse of Northern Rock and Royal Bank of Scotland exposed the casino banking that contributed to this recession, the announcement last week of record bonuses at Goldman Sachs demonstrated starkly not just the grotesque inequalities of our society but also the absolute lack of effective government control of the finance sector and therefore the economy.

At the same time, the failure of National Express on the East Coast railway line exposed the scandalous waste of public resources in subsidising the privatisation rip-off of our public services.

The slogan repeated now on demonstrations and picket lines that "we are not paying for your crisis" is exactly the right one.

By refusing to accept pay cuts, phoney sabbaticals, longer hours, worsening conditions and cuts in public services, we are forcing change in how we manage our economy, how firms are managed and controlled, how we distribute the profits of these companies and the wealth of our country, how our public services are provided and what our taxes are spent on.

Every refusal to accept a cut is a demand for the system to change. It is a statement about the unfairness and incompetence of the existing system for managing our economy and controlling our lives.

If we are told that our wages and public services can't be afforded, we can show them where we don't want our resources spent - for example on wars, weapons and privatisations - and where they can find billions more by creating a just tax system where everybody and every company pays a fair share.

If they try to tell us in a company or a public service or in government that all this can't be done, then we should tell them that if they can't manage the place then move over because we can.

Monday 6 July 2009

Another Week, Another Re-launch

I wrote this article in Saturday's Guardian's Comment is Free.

The real Left rarely gets access to the main newspaper's pages because of their control by New Labour in all its forms from Blairites/Brownites/Compass but at least the Comment is Free website is sufficiently open to the Left.

The Labour government's latest attempt to relaunch itself has turned into yet another political disaster

Another week, another relaunch. This week's "Building Britain's Future" was the fifth Gordon Brown relaunch. Launched on Monday, dismissed by Tuesday and largely forgotten by Wednesday.

The mish mash of supposed new policies not only looked stale but also undeliverable, even within Alistair Darling's most optimistic budget projections.

Each policy announcement contained the depressingly, obsessively cautious "one step forward two steps back" approach typified by the Gordon Brown premiership.

In education, the hearts of teachers were lifted with the promised end of the curriculum straitjacket. At last it appeared the government was willing to trust our teachers and schools to do their job. These hopes were soon dashed by the threats of a five-year teaching licence and the prospect of schools being dragged through the courts by disgruntled parents. In the legal profession ambulance chasing lawyers are to be joined by school bus chasers.

In housing, the announcement of a new social housing programme led by local councils has been made on at least three occasions with little effect so far and is on so limited a scale that tens of thousands of families will still be condemned to living in overcrowded, unsanitary temporary accommodation for decades to come.

Even the welcome policy U-turn on Royal Mail was made so begrudgingly that the government lost any political credit. The prime minister could have simply explained that the government had listened to the deeply-held concerns in the Labour party, trade unions and wider community and as a result changed its mind. Instead Mandelson announces the privatisation plan is only delayed by the lack of a buyer and so now the threat will continue to hang over our heads right up to the election.

Johnson's retreat on compulsory ID cards initially looked promising but the hope of a fundamental Government rethink on civil liberties was soon dismissed when it was made clear that the central "Big Brother" register was to be maintained.

Anyway, the real world intruded quickly to spoil the relaunch party.

The obscene scenes of bankers bingeing again in the City undermined any claim of the government to have taken control of the economy. "Sacks of gold" record bonuses averaging £340,000 per employee at Goldman Sachs demonstrated that casino banking is back. With a pop of the champagne corks, the City put two fingers up to the government and the rest of society and Brown and Darling looked weak and powerless.

By Thursday the failure of Brown's personal obsession with privatisation was starkly demonstrated by the collapse of the National Express's East Coast rail franchise straining the viability of the government's transport budget and programme. Once again the morale of Labour supporters was raised by the government's decision to bring the rail franchise back into public ownership but depressed by the immediate insistence of Lord Adonis that the service would be re-privatised in 2010.

Time and time again Brown is seen as trailing in the wake of events rather than controlling them. The Brown administration displays a strange contradiction in rushing to ill-judged action on some issues and no heed to advice, while on others responses are too slow and ill thought through. Fights are picked that can't be won and poison the political atmosphere.

The strategy of painting Tories as public expenditure cutters was quickly undermined by a simple display of the government's own cuts and sell-off plans. The debate has now degenerated into which party is best at inflicting cuts in public spending.

The question of who should pay for this recession should be an easy one for any Labour government. The brutal facts about unfairness of our society make it clear who is currently bearing the brunt of the recession and who should.

There are now 2.26m people unemployed, and youth unemployment is at its highest for more than 15 years. If unemployment benefit had kept pace with earnings since 1980, Jobseeker's Allowance would be worth over £100 per week today. Instead it is £64.30 or £50.95 for under-25s. And yet the chief executive of the taxpayer bailed-out RBS is awarded £9.6m pay. Corporate tax avoidance stands at £25bn a year minimum and executive pay has risen over the last 15 years at seven times the rate for the average worker.

This is no time for nail-biting caution. We need a decisive and detailed policy programme that redistributes wealth and power on a scale not seen in this country since the Attlee government. This recession is the reason for determined action, not an excuse to put it off.

After 12 years in office it pulls you up with a start to think that there are only 10 months left before an election is called. The weeks always seem to go faster as an election nears. I say to Labour supporters and especially Labour MPs that it could all be over pretty soon unless we get a grip.