Saturday, 10 June 2017

Cognitive Dissonance, Corbyn and the Labour big beasts

Cognitive dissonance occurs when someone is presented with evidence that a pre-existing belief is wrong. Holding two contradictory thoughts in your head at the same time is upsetting, even painful. People naturally seek to resolve cognitive dissonance as quickly as possible. One way is to accept the new evidence and amend their pre-existing belief. The other way is to reject the new evidence by rationalising it away, which gives people the comfort of retaining their pre-existing belief - even though the evidence shows it is wrong.

People’s approach to cognitive dissonance depends on how important the pre-existing belief is to them. For example, a UKIP supporter is likely to rationalise away any evidence presented to them which undermines their beliefs about the EU. Such rationalisation might be: - “I don’t believe that is true. You are just saying that because you are a Remainer.”  It is easy to think of examples concerning climate change, politics, economics, nationalism and many other fields. 

The American novelist Upton Sinclair pointed out an additional factor which might prevent someone following an argument where it leads: - "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

For two years, I have argued that the fabric of our society is being gravely damaged by the Tories and that Jeremy Corbyn deserved support as the person best placed to beat them. This has been a very unpopular argument among my peer group - the leftish-leaning, middle-aged, solid-middle-class. I have constantly been told that Corbyn “is unelectable”.

The journalist Gary Younge has clearly been having the same experience as me. In an article published a few days before the election he wrote this:-

For the past two years, it has been received wisdom that, when put before the national electorate, the Labour party under Corbyn was unelectable. Not simply that it would lose, but that there was no plausible way it could compete. These were not presented as opinions but as facts. Those who questioned them were treated like climate change deniers. Those who held the wisdom were the scientists. To take Labour’s prospects seriously under Corbyn was to abandon being taken seriously yourself.

In the event, Corbyn did very well in the election. After a highly impressive campaign, he won 40% of the vote - 10% above Ed Miliband two years ago. He also mobilised millions of voters who had previously not engaged with the political system at all. He has put the party in a good position to win the next election.

If Corbyn had been trounced I hope I would have had the intellectual honesty to admit I was wrong. I know that would have been painful - even somewhat humiliating. It would certainly have been tempting to rationalise away what had happened. Perhaps I would have chosen that tempting option. I really hope not. 

What matters is not who was right and who was wrong. What matters is that Labour people who have opposed Corbyn on the grounds that he was unelectable, now accept the clear evidence that he is certainly electable. There may well be another election within 12 months. Corbyn can win that but he needs all possible support - very much including the influential leftish-leaning, middle-aged, solid-middle-class.

In particular, the Labour big beasts - like Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn, Chuka Umunna, Owen Smith, Angela Eagle, Ed Miliband and Sadiq Khan - need to accept the evidence of this election. They need to now commit and work wholeheartedly behind Corbyn’s leadership and they need to serve if asked. 

It won’t be easy for them. They will need to swallow their pride. It will be painful.

But the country needs them to do this and to do it urgently.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Why I would like to see Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister

Some weeks after Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party - for the first time - in September 2015, I went to a meeting in Harlesden, north west London, called to consider setting up a branch of Momentum, an organisation that supports Corbyn’s agenda and the Labour Party. There were about 60 people there. During the meeting we went round the room with every person explaining why they had come. 

For me - a middle-aged, solid-middle-class left-winger - it was a powerful experience to hear what people had to say. Most of the people were working-class; many were struggling to make ends meet. Some spoke of their struggles and described the kind of scenes as later depicted in I, Daniel Blake. The message that was repeated over and over was that in Corbyn, for the first time in decades, they saw a politician who actually cared about people like them and who gave them hope.

Some people sneer at “hope” but consider its absence - hopelessness. Hope is the essential ingredient behind all progressive change.

If “being left-wing” means anything, it means I believe wanting to help people like those who spoke at that meeting in Harlesden. 

I hope that people will read the Labour Manifesto before voting. It is not a “loony left” document - as some “respectable” publications claim - but a realistic, fully-costed and necessary blue print to save our country from the dark, divisive future that the Tories promise, complete with food-banks and US style public services.

Corbyn has shown remarkable leadership since September 2015. He has faced a constant barrage of lies, abuse and distortions. (Corbyn is no more a “terrorist-sympathiser” than Barack Obama who faced the same accusation in 2008). He has kept his cool and never responded in kind to the personal attacks. He has produced the best manifesto for decades. He has achieved polling figures which Labour has not seen for many years. He has engaged millions in the political process. He has run a highly professional campaign. He is, to coin a phrase, “strong and stable”.

As to the question that Theresa May wants  to be at the centre of the campaign - who would be better negotiating Brexit? Just consider the two alternative teams. May, Davis, Johnson, Fox on the one hand or Corbyn, Starmer, Thornberry, Gardiner on the other.

Is Corbyn “electable”? Often when people ask this, they mean in effect, is he acceptable to Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre (who between them control over half the UK press). Since 1979, Murdoch has backed the winner at every single General Election. Tony Blair made a deal with Murdoch - and Murdoch naturally extracted a heavy price.

Corbyn thinks the UK deserves better than to be in thrall to Murdoch and the rest of the super-rich. 

I would like to see Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister not only for people like those at the meeting in Harlesden but for my family and all of us. Corbyn can create a society which no longer values greed and which has contempt for the poor - as has been the case throughout the decades where Thatcherite values have held sway - but instead a society which values every person, community and simple decency. I would very much like to see that.


Thursday, 1 June 2017

The fundamental issue at the election is a moral one

On 5 July 1945, the great war leader Winston Churchill was, against all expectations, decisively beaten at the polls by his Labour opponent Clement Attlee. The Labour manifesto in 1945 laid out an unashamedly Socialist vision for the UK and by the time the Attlee government left office six years later, it had transformed Britain’s political culture. All governments that followed in the next three decades - Tory as well as Labour - accepted Attlee’s underlying moral vision: in our society, the more fortunate have a duty to help those less fortunate.

The “Attlee consensus” lasted until 1979 and the election of Margaret Thatcher. In an interview in 1981, Thatcher made her aim in government very clear:-“Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”

Thatcher succeeded. Her government was as transformative to the UK’s political culture as Attlee’s. The name for the new governing morality - and the economics and politics that it underpinned - is Thatcherism. The name given to the same ideology internationally is Neoliberalism.

As expressed in Thatcher’s often quoted phrase that “there is no such thing as society”, Thatcherism emphasises individuals over the collective. It sees people as naturally selfish, competing individuals.

We still live in the Thatcherite age. Thatcher (and her key associates like Rupert Murdoch) did not invent greed, nor admiration for the rich, nor contempt for the poor. But what they did, was to make these attitudes socially acceptable. 

Tony Blair and New Labour deserve credit for some progressive measures and investment in public services. However, as Polly Toynbee one of the foremost cheerleaders for New Labour admits, Blair and Brown never challenged Thatcher’s “pervasive political legacy”. Toynbee writes: -“They did much good but stealthily, never shifting the public discourse. … (As a result) how easily David Cameron and Theresa May have grubbed up New Labour’s legacy.”

Under Thatcherism, rich people are admired by virtue of their wealth - and they are given licence.

There was some tax-cheating by the very rich before 1979, of course, but since then the scale has increased dramatically. Now paying tax for the super-rich has become in effect voluntary. No moral stigma attaches to these tax-cheats under Thatcherism. One of them is Sir Richard Branson; yet he is allowed to bid for and profit from UK public services such as trains and parts of the NHS.

Economically, those in the top 1% by income or by wealth have prospered mightily since 1979, with barely a pause at the time of the Crash of 2008. Within the 1%, the 0.1% have prospered even more while the 0.01% have accumulated wealth beyond imagination. 

The rich tend to like Thatcherism, of course: not only has it increased their wealth but it also teaches that they deserve their riches. Many like to pose as if they are swash-buckling, risk-taking entrepreneurs. The vast majority, however, owe their position to luck - luck of inheritance or education or some other factor. Many are rentiers - they live off their capital. “There are two types of rich people. Some who are lucky, who think they are clever. Some who are clever, who know they are lucky.”

Meanwhile, social inequality, which was at an historic low in 1979 has, since then, returned to levels last seen before the First World War and in Victorian times. There are some 13 to 14 million people in the UK living in poverty. 

Since 2010, contempt for the poor by their own government has been on a scale not seen previously in the period since 1979. The bedroom tax, the cutting of benefits, the sanctions regime and the tests that disabled people have to endure have all led to hunger (and the explosion in food-bank use), misery, despair and a sharp rise in suicides.

May’s treatment of refugees - including unaccompanied child refugees - has been shockingly callous.

Thatcherites it seems, find it possible to ignore the suffering of others and withhold natural compassion by convincing themselves that others deserve their fate. Even those who have worked for years and have fallen on hard times. Even the disabled. Even the children. Even those fleeing war and persecution. 

A core Thatcherite claim is that anyone can rise from poverty to wealth if they work hard enough. This is a cruel lie in 2017 when social mobility is very low and most people in poverty live in households where someone is working - often very hard.

The Attlee consensus lasted from 1945 to 1979, that is 34 years. The Thatcher consensus has lasted from 1979 to date, that is 38 years so far. 

I hope on 8 June 2017, something will happen which will be as unexpected as what happened on 5 July 1945. I hope the adherents of the immoral, nasty, soul-sapping Thatcherite ideology lose. I hope that the long road back to a decent society - an Attlee society fit for the Twenty First century - can then start.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Percy Bysshe Shelley and the Guardian

Jonathan Freedland is a senior commentator at the Guardian. In one of his tweets early in the election campaign he asked, derisively, if “Corbynistas” (a term of abuse) knew that the Labour slogan “For the Many, not the Few” was originally a Blairite slogan. His tweet encapsulates the problem with the Guardian’s coverage of the Labour Party, since it first became clear Jeremy Corbyn would be elected leader in the summer of 2015. Almost everything is seen through the prism of the internal split in the party and time and again the Guardian has got its facts wrong. 

Corbyn has routinely been described on the Guardian news pages as “hard-left” despite his domestic policies being in the mould of Attlee and Scandinavian social democracy. His opponents have been called “moderates” even when supporting harsh welfare measures or further bombings abroad. Previously obscure MPs have been given regular platforms to vent their anti-Corbyn views. The paper ran and ran with vile smears of anti-Semitism against Corbyn; the smears are entirely untrue but real and lasting harm has been done. 

The Guardian’s narrow focus on the internal Labour power play has meant that it has, consequently, managed to miss the real story which is that Corbyn has developed a coherent and electable alternative to the truly dire Tory government.  And they have underestimated Corbyn’s supporters. They are the most serious, committed and numerous body of political activists the UK has seen for decades: not “cult members”; not “Trots”; not “Islington poseurs”.

Anyone who relied on the Guardian solely for information about British politics is likely to be bemused by the fact that the Tory lead in the opinion polls over Labour has shrunk from 24 points at the start of the campaign to only 5 now. Was Corbyn not meant to be incapable of leading, unelectable? Would not anybody - even Owen Smith - be better? Tony Blair made an actual deal with Rupert Murdoch; surely, Labour would have to compromise with the Tory-Murdoch-Dacre agenda to have any prospect of winning? 

The Guardian is not the paper it once was. The fact that it is described as left-wing is because the rest of the press is so right-wing. In an editorial, Labour’s manifesto pledge only to raise taxes on incomes over £80,000 was dismissed as “virtue-signalling” - the sort of comment one would expect from the Mail or Telegraph. In 2010, the Guardian advised its readers to vote Liberal Democrat. It may do so again in 2017.

Of course, the Guardian has had a proud and long history of radicalism. It was originally set up as the Manchester Guardian by a business man John Taylor who witnessed the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre. On 16 August 1819, a crowd of more than 50,000 met at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester to support extending the franchise beyond the tiny amount of rich men then allowed to vote. The local magistrates sent in the cavalry to break up the peaceful crowd. At least 15 people were killed. The name Peterloo was given to point out the bitter irony that the same cavalry had fought at the real battle of Waterloo four years before in 1815. Nobody was ever held to account for the Peterloo Massacre.

The source of Labour’s slogan “For the Many, not the Few” is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem The Masque of Anarchy, which was written in response to the Peterloo Massacre.

It is a brilliant poem. It has many contemporary resonances. Three monsters terrorise England - Murder, Fraud and Anarchy - but they are conquered by Hope.

“I met Murder on the way -
He had a mask like Castlereagh” 

Or “a mask like Theresa May” would scan too. If you think that’s a bit strong, have you seen I, Daniel Blake?  Have you read the reports of multiple suicides linked to May’s cruel welfare system?

“Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Lord Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.

And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them”

For Lord Eldon, one could put any number of greedy, super-rich antisocial tax-cheats. How about Philip Green or Rupert Murdoch or Richard Branson?  Their tax-cheating leads to deeper cuts to services and a rising number of hungry little children having to use food banks.

“Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.”

Anarchy in the poem is the anarchy of the rich and powerful, who do what they want. In 2017, Anarchy should stand for Donald Trump - a man who could literally cause an apocalypse and whom May hurried to hold hands with - only predictably to now be treated with the disdain with which bullies always treat sycophants.

But Shelley’s poem is hopeful. Murder, Fraud and Anarchy despite their huge power can be beaten.

“When one fled past, a maniac maid,
And her name was Hope, she said:
But she looked more like Despair

A rushing light of clouds and splendour,
A sense awakening and yet tender
Was heard and felt - and at its close
These words of joy and fear arose

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many and they are few.”

The Guardian would once have been supportive of Corbyn, who has the same anger against injustice and passion for social justice as Shelley. Not only has it not been with Corbyn but worse it has been actively undermining him since 2015.

I hope the Guardian will rediscover its radical roots, as a matter of urgency.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

UK’s National Debt - both a Tory failure and a media failure. Some questions.

Consider these two facts.

When Cameron and Osborne came to power in 2010, the UK’s National Debt was £979 BILLION, which amounted to 65% of GDP.  

The latest figures, which are for 2016, show that the UK’s National Debt was then £1.73 TRILLION, which amounted to 89% of GDP.  By May 2017, the National Debt has doubled - or nearly doubled - after seven years of Coalition and Tory rule.

In 2010, Cameron and Osborne wanted the Deficit (the annual gap between income and expenditure) and the Debt (the total amount owed by the government) to be at the centre of the public debate in the UK.

In 2017, May does not want the two facts above to be highlighted.

The UK’s mainstream media have faithfully followed the Tory wishes both in 2010 and now. Their failure to hold the Tories to account on this and most other issues is an appalling dereliction of their democratic duty.

In 2010 and following, print media and broadcasters talked about Deficit and Debt incessantly. 

They failed to hold Osborne to account when he said that the UK was on the brink of bankruptcy.  That was a barefaced lie.  If the UK’s Debt meant this was true in 2010, how can the Tory narrative that the economy is doing well in 2017 also be true, when the Debt is now double that of 2010?

All this matters hugely because it was the Deficit and Debt narrative that the Tories used to justify their programme of austerity. If anyone had the temerity to oppose austerity they were derided in the media - including by BBC correspondents - as a “Deficit-denier”.

Austerity was a con, perpetrated primarily on the poorest in society but also on many in the middle of society. Austerity did not touch the 1% - UK’s “elites”. 

Austerity was not justified by economics. Leading economists including Nobel laureates warned in 2010 that austerity would not work. They have been proved right with low growth, stagnant wages, crumbling infrastructure and a doubling of the Debt in seven years. Admittedly, they were wrong about mass unemployment - instead millions are trapped working in insecure jobs for poverty wages.

The Deficit and Debt narrative was used as an excuse to allow the Tories to impose an ideological Thatcherite vision on the UK. This was to have the State as small as possible. 

Austerity led to an unprecedented transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.

By 2013, child poverty was rising sharply, Oxfam and the Red Cross were helping the poor in the UK for the first time since WW2, Sure Starts had closed, as had libraries. Life for millions in UK was very bleak and to get bleaker.

At the same time, the wealth of the rich - the top 1% and particularly the top 0.1% - saw very large increases.

Very few people will get the opportunity to press Theresa May on live TV in this election. I dream that one of them will do so without fear or favour. Here are some questions I would like asked of the PM.
  1. The National Debt has doubled since 2010. Since then the Tories have sold off many public assets. They have not invested much in infrastructure. They have made swingeing cuts. Where has all the money gone?
  2. If depriving severely disabled people of benefits was justified because of the Debt, how could it at the same time be right to slash Inheritance Tax? 
  3. Isn’t the truth that the cuts to the poorest and most vulnerable in our society were not motivated by a desire to reduce the Debt but by an ideological obsession to reduce the size of the State? It was a con, wasn’t it PM?
  4. Have you seen I, Daniel Blake? No? Well, you really should prime minister. Ken Loach has done what Dickens did for the Victorians and Orwell did in the 1930s - that is he has revealed to the comfortable middle class what is going on for the poor and vulnerable in their country. As PM and as a professed Christian, I would urge you to see the film and act on it.
  5. I have here a list of leading Tory donors. These people have prospered greatly since 2010. It looks like some kind of deal - they fund you, you look after them. What do you say PM?
  6. Thank you
Blog amended on 16 May to say National Debt has doubled - OR NEARLY DOUBLED - between 2010 and May 2017

Saturday, 13 May 2017

GUEST BLOG by a Deputy Head about harm that school funding cuts will cause to children, teachers and the country

I am a Deputy Head in a large inner city comprehensive, which has been much praised for the all-round education it provides to its very diverse intake of students. I feel in the current climate that I have to stay anonymous.

I am deeply concerned at the harmful effects that funding constraints - both now and going forward under the proposed new funding formula - will have on the education and life-chances of our students.
The cuts will, without doubt, really affect our school’s ability to do its core work in the classroom. ‎More and more is being done by less and less as the cuts impact on both staff and learning resources.

However, I want to highlight another aspect. It is crucial that we do not forget the importance of extra-curricular activities to educate the whole child. I am profoundly worried about their future. There is almost no money left in the pot for anything which is not a core activity. 

Furthermore, the cuts will take away the vital capacity of teachers to offer more. Due to teachers teaching more hours and larger classes, we are exhausting their goodwill and energy to support those vital extra-curricular projects that are essential for so many of our students. 

As a truly comprehensive school where many students do not automatically get exposed to art, sport, the City and a multitude of experiences that other children are lucky enough to have, my school passionately believes in the whole child and it is projects like Duke of Edinburgh; global links with our partner school in Africa; Community Volunteering; Artsmark, drama projects; enterprise and more that build up resilience, confidence and a sense of wonder.

These funding cuts tear at the very heart of the wonderful community school where I work. We have an ethos and values that put education of the whole child and of every child at its centre. Our vital work will be jeopardised.

I am upset above all for the children but also for the teachers. And I am also upset for the country - surely we can afford to properly fund education of the next generation in the sixth richest country in the world?

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Could Fascism come to the UK? Yes, of course it could

“ It hardly needs pointing out that at this moment we are in a very serious mess, so serious that even the dullest-witted people find it difficult to remain unaware of it ” - George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

Orwell writing in 1937 was concerned about the prospect of Fascism coming to the UK. At the time, the continent of Europe was dominated by Fascists in Germany, Italy, Spain and a number of smaller countries.

As I write in 2017, there is a Fascist in the White House and across the Channel another Fascist is in the run-off to become president of France.

It is not necessary to carry out mass murder as Hitler did to qualify as a Fascist.

There is no single accepted definition of Fascism. This five part test can be helpful.
A Fascist leader:-
1. is contemptuous of the democratic process.
2. is contemptuous of the rule of law.
3. stigmatises and persecutes minorities. 
4. lies and fabricates; undermines and threatens those who tell the truth; uses hyper-nationalistic language.
5. regards himself or herself as the source of all “legitimate power”.

Orwell warned that if Fascism came to the UK it might not at first look or feel like Fascism at all - although he expected it to become more recognisable as time went on.

English Fascism, when it arrives, is likely to be of a sedate and subtle kind (presumably, at any rate at first, it won’t be called Fascism)…”

“…Fascism is coming; probably a slimy Anglicised form of Fascism, with cultured policemen instead of Nazi gorillas and the lion and the unicorn instead of the swastika.”

In 1937 the British Establishment with a few exceptions - like Orwell and Winston Churchill - far from opposing Fascism, favoured appeasement of Nazi Germany. The press and the BBC duly reflected that Establishment opinion. (Churchill complained in 1938 that he had been “muzzled by the BBC”.)

In 2017, the UK faces another threat of Fascism. The Establishment - which largely retains control over the media and the narrative heard by the British people - does not even recognise such a threat. It is preoccupied with the danger (to itself) of Socialism.

The Establishment have been attacking the Socialist Jeremy Corbyn with an extraordinary intensity for the last two years. He has been vilified, traduced and misrepresented daily in almost the entire media.  All this has been done by the finest minds in journalism, PR and advertising and, unsurprisingly, he will probably be crushed. 

Meanwhile, the Tory party has adopted the policies and the rhetoric of the once-fringe racist UKIP.

Theresa May is clearly comfortable with Fascists. She can be expected to embrace Marine Le Pen warmly, in the event that she is elected president of France today. She famously held hands with Trump and she then flew straight from the USA to meet Erdogan who has locked up record numbers of Turkish journalists and lawyers who have had the temerity to oppose him.

It is likely that the British people will be subject to huge turmoil in the years after the current election. Scotland - and even Northern Ireland - may leave the Union. Brexit - and the likely failure of the negotiations - will probably mean that the rump of the UK will face a severe economic crisis for the many (while the few at the top continue to prosper).

The people who will have caused the crisis - the Tories, the press-barons and the rest - will naturally cast around for scapegoats to blame. The likely targets will be Muslims, foreigners, and the poor.

The Tories under May have crushed opposition. Not only political opposition but also other types which are essential for a properly functioning democracy.  

The British media’s performance during this election campaign is evidence of just how far it has become subservient to the Establishment. Incredibly, it seems likely May will win this election without facing any real scrutiny. She has refused to take part in TV debates or to take questions from the public or from anyone except for a few favoured interviewers. The media is hardly challenging this insult to democracy and is failing shamefully in its democratic duty of holding the powerful to account. 

Meanwhile, in the legal system, the Tories have made it more difficult to challenge them in the courts and have targeted law firms which have been at the forefront of bringing such challenges. And when judges, doing their job and interpreting the law, were vilified as “enemies of the people” in the press, the government said nothing.

And - chillingly - a year or two ago, the Tories passed the most invasive legislation on mass surveillance in the Western world.

The temptation for the Tories to slide into Orwell’s “sedate and subtle” Fascism, when faced with unrest, will be great. Power corrupts, let alone absolute power.

Of course, there is also another different danger of Fascism in the UK. A demagogue may arise and say that the “hope” that the likes of Corbyn offered failed and instead they will offer the far more intoxicating brew of “hate”.

I am scared where this will all end.

Monday, 24 April 2017

GUEST BLOG - GE 2017: Where to focus for the independent Leftie? by William Bolton

Didn’t expect this election now;  don’t think Labour should have voted for it without extracting some serious concessions from the Tories;  resent having my own plans for the next 6 weeks torn up by Theresa May for her own advantage;  think single member constituency first past the post elections for an unreformed Westminster are a sad apology for democracy.  So, primarily feel sick and manipulated. 

But – you can’t just concede the battlefield to a Tory party running on a close approximation of the BNP’s 2005 election manifesto

If you are Tom London and a rock solid Labour loyalist, the path is easy.  If you are a more free-floating independent Leftie, then more options are available – not necessarily a good thing.  I am grateful to Tom for making space on his blog for a point of view that is not his own.  

What to do?  Where to focus limited time and energy?  Some personal thoughts on the options follow – views on the answers sought!
1) Believe that Labour can hold the line at local level better than the national polls would imply
(a)  Fight the conventional fight in pro-Remain marginals in London or the big cities: defend sitting Labour MPs whose politics appeal and try to make sure the Tories don't make any gains there.
(b)  Fight the conventional fight in pro-Brexit marginals: try to defend sitting Labour MPs in the Midlands & North whose politics appeal and who are Tory targets. 

2) Believe that Labour is going to do very badly and therefore:
(a)  the composition of the PLP rump after the election is the important thing: 
  1. Be positive: defend (or try to get elected) the most appealing broadly pro-Corbyn and pro-change Labour candidates;
  2. Go negative:  encourage tactical voting to take the scalps of the worst, most disloyal Labour MPs.

(b) what comes after Labour is the important thing:
  1. get some Greens into clear second place challenger position, such as Natalie Bennett in Sheffield Central;
  2. try to strengthen the position of left-leaning national & regional parties, such as Plaid, SNP, the Yorkshire Party.

3) Believe that the most important thing is to campaign against the worst aspects of our existing system
(a) We will never get change under First Past the Post, so use the election to raise awareness of the need for electoral reform. 
(b) Campaign against the media system: for example, increase awareness of the scandal of the BBC taking its agenda so directly from the oligarch press – the Sun, Mail, Times, Telegraph, Express, Standard.
(c) Campaign positively for an alternative media: support some kind of alternative election news source. 

A focus on fighting the election in the conventional way, and the immediate need to fight against Tory lies, means working for regular Labour CLPs or supporting Momentum teams to do that.

A focus on trying to break the Tory-Labour duopoly system means working for the Greens in a constituency fight eg Natalie Bennett in Sheffield Central, or for others, say Leanne Wood in the Rhondda.

Rejecting our malign, farcical electoral system as it is presented to us perhaps means working for Neal Lawson and Compass’s progressive alliance for electoral reform

Rejecting our malign, farcical media system perhaps means getting involved with the Media Reform Coalition, and whatever they decide to do during the election campaign.  

Can’t do them all!  Which to choose?

Sunday, 23 April 2017

GE 2017: Socialism - Corbyn, Attlee, Sanders, Orwell, Paine and Loach

The very term “Socialist” had been so thoroughly ridiculed and vilified for decades, that I would never have thought of describing myself as a Socialist at the time of the last General Election in May 2015. (Remember that election? It was when Cameron was successfully marketed as a “statesman” and his backers in the mainstream media persuaded people that Miliband was “odd” and was the one who would bring “chaos”).

I realise now that my beliefs mean I should describe myself as a Socialist. Obviously, I have been influenced by Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and by Bernie Sanders in the US. The greatest peacetime prime minister the UK has ever had, Clement Attlee, was a proud Socialist, as was the greatest British writer on politics and society of the last century, George Orwell.

My political hero, Tom Paine - arguably the father of modern democracy and human rights - predated Socialism but he shared some crucial beliefs with it. Paine hated bullying by the rich of the poor. He challenged the assumptions of the powerful everywhere he went: - “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right”. 

Paine’s comments, 200 years ago, were revolutionary and dangerous:-
“When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want…When these things can be said, then may the country boast of its constitution and its government.”

Like Corbyn, Paine was viciously mocked and abused - that is the inevitable fate of anyone who dares to challenge the interests of the powerful.

In The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937, Orwell addresses the meaning of Socialism. He defines its essential ideals as “justice and liberty”.  These ideals are to be understood in a very practical sense. In 2017, for example, the courts may give you justice, but only if you can access them and millions of people have been denied effective access since 2010. And someone working all hours on poverty wages has little meaningful liberty. 

Orwell sets a test for himself and others so they can know whether or not they are a Socialist. In the first half of The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell describes the bleak conditions of the working class in the coal mining areas of Lancashire and Yorkshire in the Great Depression of the 1930s. He starts the second half of the book arguing that “before you can be sure whether you are genuinely in favour of Socialism, you have got to decide whether (such) things at present are tolerable or not tolerable.”  

(Orwell is scathing about Middle Class left-wingers who like to advocate progressive policies but always manage to rationalise to themselves why this is never the right time or this is never the right method to actually fight to make them a reality. “Here you come upon the important fact that every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a secret conviction that nothing can be changed”. Orwell would undoubtedly view the Guardian, the spiritual home of such have-your-cake-and-eat-it views, with withering contempt in the current circumstances.)

When Orwell described the grinding poverty in the North, he was consciously following in the tradition of Charles Dickens. He wanted the comfortable middle class to know what was happening in their country. He knew that most of them were oblivious to the reality. They did not see it with their eyes. It did not affect anyone they knew. They could pretend - even to themselves - it was not happening under their noses.

The closest we have to a Dickens or an Orwell today is, probably, Ken Loach.
His film I, Daniel Blake, shows the grim reality of the lives of millions of people in the UK. According to an authoritative study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 13.5 million people are living in poverty in the UK today. This number includes 3.7 million children. And more people living in poverty are in working households than in non-working households - people are working hard for poverty pay. (The facts make a mockery of the facile Tory mantra that if you work hard you can escape poverty.)

I, Daniel Blake shows what Loach describes as the “conscious cruelty” of the Tory benefit system. At the heart of the film is the draconian and arbitrary system of benefit sanctions. The most vulnerable in society including children, the mentally ill and the physically disabled are “punished”. A number of suicides have been linked to these sanctions. They force people to food-banks which since 2010 have become “normal” in the UK. This is one of the richest countries in the world - yet since 2013, the Red Cross has been delivering food parcels to our hungry and well over a million food parcels are handed out each year and the number is rising inexorably.

I don’t think that what I, Daniel Blake describes is tolerable in our country. By Orwell’s test, then I am a Socialist. 

The stakes are incredibly high in this election. On the one side is the Trump-loving, NHS-destroying, public-services-trashing, Murdoch-Dacre-crony May. On the other, the Socialist Corbyn. I am with the Socialist.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

GUEST BLOG A poem for our times - by Anon

11th september 2001
That defining moment when time begun
We dont know what happened and what came before
But from that day on continuous war.
You're either with us or against us, that foolish attitude
That provided no space, no room, no latitude
To think deeply about the problems that affect us,
Perplex us, reflect us, connect us.
Now most of us can't see the wood for the trees
Like when kids are crying and down on their knees
But that doesnt stop us from feeling unease 
Our paradise island and its hypnotic breeze
Thrust into chaos by tabloid decrees,
A dead child on the sand and 'migrants' 
are 'refugees'
Still we are willing to let them freeze in the seas -
Oh what a tease when we claim to be Liberal
It's just so typical
In the land of the enlightened
But we are still so frightened 
Of the alien 'other'
Just a brother from another mother,
And the ones who were losing
Were never the ones choosing
Hate over love or war over peace
It was just bad luck they were born in the Middle East.
It could have been you, it could have been me
But we are so blinded that we just can't see
A sister in faith or a sister in humanity 
We weren't meant to judge based on nationality. 
Who knows what tomorrow brings and what lies ahead
But a noble Prophet surely once said 
'The best richness is the richness of the soul'
The soul that only knows how to be whole
When we live together, breathe together
Feel together, dream for a better
Life for ourselves and the next generation
Humanity, remember we are one nation
One family, one planet, one creation. 

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Normalisation of hate and fascism

Did you follow what was being said by the politicians in the Dutch election this week?

Here is what one of the candidates said about the Jews. He said he wanted
  • to close all synagogues
  • to ban all Jewish religious books
  • to “de-Jew” Holland

Actually I made that up - with the intention of shocking. That was Holland in 1940 not 2017.

However, the truth is no less shocking. This is what Geert Wilders, whose party came second in the Dutch election, said in reality. He said he wanted
  • to close all mosques
  • to ban the Koran
  • to “de-Islamise” Holland

Wilders did not win (this time). The election was won by the centre-right Mark Rutte. 

However, Wilders has already succeeded in dragging Rutte towards him. Rutte started his campaign with a letter calling on anyone who rejects Dutch values and  “attacks gays, jeers at women in mini-skirts, and calls ordinary Dutch people racists” to leave the country. Many religious Christians and Jews oppose homosexuality and “immodest” women’s clothing - but it was clear it was not people like them that Rutte meant. It was Muslims.

Alongside Wilders’ and indeed Rutter’s words, physical and verbal attacks on Muslims have increased in Holland.

And yet. The BBC does not describe Wilders as a fascist but uses the weasel word “populist”. It links him with his “fellow populist” Marine Le Pen.

Meanwhile on LBC, Nigel Farage is interviewing the fascist Marine Le Pen and the radio station proudly advertises the interview describing Le Pen as a “controversial right winger”.

The parallels with the fascists of the 1930s and 1940s are plain to those who don’t look away. 

Hate and fascism are being normalised.

Book a free ticket on Eventbrite for Kensal and Kilburn Better 2017 Event on 19 April in Queen’s Park, NW London, called “Our Media and Our Democracy” where you will hear brilliant speakers including

  • Miqdaad Versi on Islamophobia in UK media
  • Richard Wilson of Stop Funding Hate

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Kensal and Kilburn Better 2017 - an attempt to provide some points of light.

W H Auden published a poem in October 1939 called 1 September 1939 - the date Germany invaded Poland and the world plunged into the horror of the Second World War. Here is the last verse.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Those of us born after the Second World War in the UK have never been “beleaguered by the same negation and despair” that people must have felt as war broke out just 21 years after the slaughter of the previous war and this time against an enemy that was the embodiment of evil.

2016 was the closest we have yet come. By the end of that miserable year it was clear that there were real threats to our democracy, our rights and what was left of our “decent society”. 

This was the background to a group of us - author and campaigner Melissa Benn, NHS nurse Tom Lennard and I, with others - deciding that rather than succumbing to despair we would try and do something positive. 

We all believe that politics is not a spectator sport. It’s not about “them”, it is about “us”.

“Better 2017” means we hope that 2017 and subsequent years will be better than 2016. “Kensal and Kilburn” is important to us because this is where we live. There is a community here and we cherish that.

We are organising a series of events about issues which matter. Our first event, “So, who is going to look after us when we get old?” had excellent panel members and everyone who attended was able to contribute to a good discussion. People told us they really liked it.

We are planning four more events this year. 

On 19 April, “Our media and our democracy. How well are we being served by our mainstream media?”

On 4 July, “Can we avoid another financial crisis? What is the “new economics” and what does it offer us?”

In September, “How can we get better schools and higher education?”

In November, “How can we do better on housing for younger people in London?”

All being well, we’ll hold more events next year.

Of course, we have an agenda. We are members of the Labour Party, the Green Party and no political party. We think there are fundamental problems with our society. 

We are not seeking to have “balanced panels”. On the whole, the people we invite to speak will be critical of the status quo. Every day the powerful who run the status quo get to put their worldview unchallenged. We will challenge prevailing assumptions.

Of course, people may strongly disagree with what they hear. Great. Let’s discuss. We want to make sure that everyone has a chance to have their say. We believe it is possible to have polite, reasoned discussions on controversial issues.

We hope you will come to our events. They can all be found by searching Kensal and Kilburn Better 2017 on Eventbrite.

We want to be ambitious, optimistic and realistic. In the words of Bernie Sanders: - “Despair is not an option”.

We hope that Kensal and Kilburn Better 2017 will, in Auden’s words, “show an affirming flame” and provide some “points of light”.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

The Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn - a reply to Owen Jones

Owen Jones has written an article this week in the Guardian calling on Jeremy Corbyn to stand down. I take what Jones says seriously but I think he is wrong.

Some may dismiss what Jones says by attacking the man and not the argument. Jones himself anticipates this - “The party’s warring factions now refuse to accept that differing opinions are expressed in good faith - there have to be ulterior motives, ranging from careerism to self-aggrandisement to “virtue signalling””. 

I completely accept that Jones writes in good faith. Equally, I do so too. Jones and I passionately want the same two things - to defeat this destructive Tory government and to elect a decent, progressive Labour government. The argument is not about the ends but the means.

Jones calls for “an agreement to be struck where Corbyn can stand down in exchange for  the guarantee of an MP from the new generation on the ballot paper who is committed to the policies that Inspired Corbyn’s supporters in the first place.”

There are two issues here - the policy and the leader.

I agree with Jones that Corbyn’s policies are more likely to win an election than those of his Labour Party opponents. As he says correctly of those opponents - “They had no compelling or coherent alternative (to Corbyn).” He writes that the “more perceptive among the ranks of the opponents recognise this. The less perceptive have become embittered nihilists, defined almost exclusively by hostility to the left.”  

It is a lazy and too common assumption that the Labour Party would be doing OK if only it had more centrist or right wing policies. This seems to be based on the example of Tony Blair. However, 2017 is not 1997. In particular, there have been two General Elections since the 2008 Crash and Labour has lost both of them. Labour’s underlying problems pre-date Corbyn. Labour lost almost 5 million votes between 1997 and 2010 (going from 13.5 million to 8.6 million). It was not Corbyn’s policies that led to a wipe-out in Scotland. 

If Owen Smith had been leader would he have even held Stoke?

Corbyn’s opponents fundamental claim is that they are the grown-ups, the sensible ones who know how to win elections. Yet they launched the shambolic, destructive and pointless coup last year just at the time when the Tories were on the ropes, which led to a disastrous plunging in Labour’s poll ratings which have never recovered since.

Since becoming leader, Corbyn has inspired hundreds of thousands to join the Labour party. Given the low level of political engagement in the UK, it is depressing how far from welcoming this, some sneer and belittle the fact.

Jones’ criticism of Corbyn is not about his policies but about his leadership qualities. He says Corbyn is ineffective and wants him replaced with a younger, more effective communicator (unnamed).

I have no problem with Jones’ idea in principle - (but I have two problems in practice). I support Corbyn not because of the man - although I admire him - but because of his policies. If someone else really could make them more likely to be implemented then it would make sense to support them. 

However - unless we are to have a dramatic announcement by a group of Labour MPs - Jones’ swap idea appears to be nothing more than pie in the sky dreaming. All the signs are to date that Labour MPs are doing everything in their power to ensure that a candidate with Corbyn’s policies will never be allowed to go on to the leadership ballot to be voted on by the membership.

The second problem with the swap idea is that it underestimates the power of the UK elite, in particular through its control of the media. We don’t know who Jones new, improved Corbynite leader would be. However, even if they had the political skills of an Abraham Lincoln or a FDR and the looks of Justin Trudeau, as long as they put forward policies that threatened the UK’s elite they would face the same tsunami of bile and distortion that Corbyn has had to endure and the same blocking of their positive message. 

The elite don’t need anything substantive to destroy a politician. The day before the 2015 General Election, John Humphries on BBC radio 4 Today merrily described the Sun’s front page, it was the picture of Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich.  I remember this because when I heard it, I felt a literal pain in my stomach. I know how this kind of subliminal messaging is very effective - that’s why the advertisers spend billions of pounds on it.

There is only one way for a Labour leader to achieve anything approaching fair coverage in the UK media. That is to make it clear to the UK elite that they are no threat to them. That is what Tony Blair did. He actually made an explicit deal with Rupert Murdoch.

The UK elite are trying to crush Corbyn and would try and crush any successor with the same policies. Do we take a stand or do we allow the word “electable” to mean “acceptable to Murdoch and Dacre and the rest of the elite”?

The road to social justice and a decent society is hard. Like the road to the vote and to human rights. 

Corbyn needs help with his communications. So, let’s help him. Let’s stand and fight together, Owen.  

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Two lessons from Stoke and Copeland by-elections

UKIP lost but UKIP has won

I spent the day in Stoke two weeks ago. If, like me, you have the sense that the world in 2017 bears deeply disturbing resemblances to the 1930s, then it seemed important to go to Stoke. It was being widely forecast that the UKIP leader would win in Stoke - dubbed the “Leave capital of the UK”.

In the end, UKIP lost in Stoke. Labour increased its margin of victory. The Brexit, Trump bandwagon was derailed. That is very important.

However, in another sense UKIP won in Copeland.  The Tory party in 2017 has adopted most of the policies and tone of UKIP. The Tories want a Hard Brexit, they are intolerant, harsh on the poor but indulgent to the very rich, dog-whistle racist, cruel to child refugees,Trumpist - and even support Grammar Schools. 

Much of the media repeat Theresa May’s own claims to be on the centre-ground of British politics as if they reflect reality. This is dire journalism. May’s claims in this regard are not backed by any meaningful actions - they are as vacuous as David Cameron’s were. 

The UKIP vote collapsed in Copeland. In 2015 Labour had a majority over the Tories of 2.5k with UKIP third. The UKIP vote collapsed from 2015 to 2017 by over 4k. Most of these votes clearly went to the "new UKIP" i.e. the Tories.

(Contrary to the media hype, Copeland was a marginal seat - the once great Labour lead there had been reducing steadily for decades due to a changing demographic).

If you want to beat the Tories, support Corbyn

I support Jeremy Corbyn because
1. He has, in my view, the best set of policies 
2. He will I assume be leader of the Labour party at the next election.

I think the UK faces an equivalent to a Trump/Clinton choice. The stakes have never been higher in UK politics in my lifetime. Those on the left who do not support Corbyn are the political equivalents of those who supported Sanders and then - on, as they saw it, a "point of principle" - refused to support Clinton. 

Whereas those on the right seem to understand that if you want power you cannot expect a "perfect" or even anything approaching a "perfect" leader, the left has too often descended into factionalism.

The Guardian newspaper is the base of the anti-Corbyn left. Their view is broadly - we agree with his policies but we don't like him. The famous Monty Python sketch was aimed at the far left but it applies now to the Guardian view of the Labour Party. This view is a self-indulgence which may well exact a heavy price for anyone who cares about a decent society in the UK.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Trump is a fascist; we should call him one

Nobody knows how the Trump presidency will end. How much grief and destruction will he wreak before then? And how will it end? By impeachment? At the ballot box? By stepping down after 8 years? Even - as has been suggested - by a bullet? Whatever the future holds, Trump should be labelled now as what he is - a fascist.

Here are five reasons why Trump should be properly described as a fascist.
  1. He is contemptuous of the democratic process.
  2. He is contemptuous of the rule of law.
  3. He stigmatises and persecutes minorities. He falsely describes some as being an existential threat to the country.
  4. He lies and fabricates. He undermines and threatens those who tell the truth. He uses hyper-nationalistic language - “Make America Great Again”.
  5. He is an arch narcissist and sees himself as the source of all “legitimate power”.

It is easy to underestimate Trump; to dismiss him as a buffoon; to think he can be controlled. That was exactly how many people felt about Hitler in 1933.

Unless Trump is stopped - and he may well be - it is likely that he will bring democracy in the US to an end, at least for a period. Democracy means not only free and fair elections but also the rule of law, a free press, rights for minorities etc.

Trump may also seek war, as fascists tend to do, in order to distract and to bolster their own position.

It matters a great deal that Trump is labelled a fascist and that the label sticks so that no one can think of him without recognising that he is a fascist. Would Theresa May have been so sycophantic to “Trump the fascist”? Would the press-barons Murdoch, Rothermere/Dacre, Barclays, Desmond be so brazen in their support for “Trump the fascist”? Would the BBC feel it necessary to provide balance  for “Trump the fascist”?; to give fascism a “fair hearing”?

Trump is a fascist; we should call him one. All the time.