Archive for February, 2010

Labour and community organising.

February 28, 2010

There was an interesting article in yesterday’s Guardian: ‘Labour party is major force for alienation in Britain’s big cities’. Some US activist person working in Manchester has claimed that someone like Barack Obama would not have been able to succeed in rising up through the Labour Party.

I agree that a rigid party structure can be off-putting to some people. Every Labourite has come across plenty of internal party rules-obsessives who seem to take delight in lecturing new members about all the boring stuff involved in political organisation.

I also accept that there are plenty of local Labour parties across the country that are lacking in any sort of dynamism. In places with populations where ‘people would vote for a monkey wearing a red rosette’ etc it is too easy for the Labour Party to become the conservative-minded establishment.

Whatever the result of the upcoming election, I have no doubt that the Labour Party will need to concentrate more on rebuilding its roots in community networks and recruiting more people to its activist base.

However, apart from these general points, there’s a lot in the Guardian piece that I find irritating.

For one thing, James Purnell’s former special adviser is quoted as saying “James was interested in doing something different because he felt that the Labour Party had given up on organising and emancipating people”. The born-again grassroots activist Purnell is apparently going to work with the campaigners at London Citizens.   

To say that the Labour Party has given up on organising people is a bit dismissive of all the party organisers up and down the country who have worked hard to give people like Mr Purnell his job in Parliament.

And whilst I like any example of gay rights campaigners and Muslim clerics working together on something, I’m always a bit sceptical of unelected people from religious groups saying “politicians have to listen to us, to negotiate with us”.

I do not accept that a better form of democrat community organising is to hand over more influence to religious figures and to undermine the role that political parties can play. While on this subject, there’s a post over at HP about Islamist entryism in East London that everyone should have a look at.

Political parties are not the ‘end all’ of political organising, but I don’t think we should give up on them. Internal party reforms to encourage greater openness and to make membership more meaningful may be needed – yet I would still prefer to retain party structures rather than surrender too much political space to potentially less democratic forces.

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Our honourable friend in the north.

February 28, 2010

I’m annoyed with Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North, at the mo.

Firstly, he had a letter in this week’s Islington Tribune about the future of the Whittington Hospital in which he pointedly failed to mention his colleague in the very marginal southern seat.

Fine, she’s not from the same wing of the party as Socialist Campaign Group member Corbyn, but surely it wouldn’t have hurt to have mentioned that both of Islington’s Labour MPs want the A&E unit at the Whittington to be retained. Not very comradely.

And secondly, I recently got round to reading the Harry’s Place post ‘Jeremy Corbyn: MP for rioters’.

I’m disappointed that Corbyn thinks it’s a good use of his time to campaign for people who throw bricks at police officers and police horses. I’m disgusted by him talking about “our friends in Hezbollah and Hamas”.

Tch, tch.

The mystery of Gordon Brown’s voting intention.

February 24, 2010

One of the highlights of last night’s canvassing session was knocking on the door of a resident with the vaguely familiar name of ‘Mr Gordon Brown’. I was very keen to find out whether he was a Labour supporter or not.

Unfortunately Mr Brown was not in last night so I had to make do with leaving him some leaflets. However, I am determined to return soon! Hopefully he will not be massive grump who screams profanities at me whilst wearing a towel or who throws mobile phones in the direction of bad news.

By the way, the canvassing results last night were very positive. The only person to mention the ‘Bully-gate’ story was a voter who thought that it was the press who were bullying the Prime Minister and that they should lay off the personal attacks.

Half the people we spoke to identified as Labour. All the rest were undecided. No-one admitted to being a committed Lib Dem/Tory voter. Everyone appreciated that the upcoming election would be very close and that voting was important. If we can keep this up, we’ll have a chance of scraping through in Islington…

Justice for Sean Rigg – Time to give the IPCC some ‘oomph’

February 23, 2010

I attended the Home Affairs Select Committee hearing into the working of the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The sister of Sean Rigg, whose brother died in police custody in 2008, was not very impressed with the IPCC’s “Mickey Mouse” investigation into her brother’s death.

In a very emotional testimony, she told the MPs that the complaints procedure was so insensitive and inefficient that she and her family had become convinced that the IPCC was simply defending the police.

Although I had every sympathy with her plight I wasn’t quite sure whether I agreed with such an assessment of the IPCC. However, the Chair of the Commission – Nick Hardwick – gave a very lame performance. It did exactly fill you with confidence that the IPCC was being rigorous in checking complaints made against the police.

It took the IPCC seven months to interview the cops present on the night that Sean Rigg died. Seven months – what a joke. Hardwick was unable to give a satisfactory explanation as to why the IPCC operated in such a lackadaisical way and it was clear that MPs were unimpressed.

Changes are certainly needed at the IPCC.

Summary of Thoughts 22/2/10

February 22, 2010
  • The Bully Brown story is a crazy mess. I’ve been keeping an eye on developments all day and it’s very hard to predict who’s going to come out worst. Gordo can clearly be a bit of a charmless grump, but the one time I met him he was perfectly pleasant. It was election night 2005 and I’d managed to get into the main Labour Party party. I was blocking Brown’s path to the drinks table or the toilet or something and so he said “Excuse me”. Very polite. No nonsense, uncompromising, but polite. The Pratt-by-name-prat-by-nature woman who squealed about her charity’s Downing Street clients has zilch credibility. How sadly predictable for Cameron to call for an inquiry – what happened to rising above the Punch and Judy politics? A more mature political culture would examine the Government’s success in prioritising anti-bullying efforts in schools.  
  • For once I agree with Nadine Dorries. Every MP should be made to undergo something like the Towerblock of Commons existence. Austin Mitchell was as disappointing as ever in this weeks episode – the final of the series. It was so frustrating to hear the manager of the threatened Youth Club say that she thought Mitchell could have done more to help her. I drew much satisfaction, however, from Dorries’ young host saying he still didn’t trust David Cameron even after meeting him and being subjected to the full ‘Call me Dave’ charm offensive. Dorries looked annoyed, but the young fella’s reaction seems to reflect what we’re seeing in the opinion polls.
  • Today in the Commons saw Oral Questions to MOD ministerial team. Lots of MPs – most of them Tories – were using the occasion to indulge in some enthusiastic saber-rattling. Concern was expressed with both Argentina continuing to lay claim to the Falklands and pirates in Somalia continuing to do piratey things. Tough Government responses were urged. Armed Forces Minister Bill Rammell promised to be tough on piracy, tough on the causes of piracy. Personally, I’m beginning to think the greatest threat to our nation would be posed by a Pirate-Argentinian alliance invading Gibraltar. 
  • Politicians are usually campaigning to save hospitals. Well, any politician who campaigns to close one particular hospital can count on my support. The Royal London Homeopathic Hospital treats people with water. Homeopathy is, in the opinion of myself and anyone who applies scientific tests to the ‘treatments’, a lot of tosh and it is a scandal that it receives any public funding. If expenditure cuts are needed anywhere please can we make sure that NHS homeopathy services suffer first!
  • 11 weeks before election o’clock! Argh!

The political pleasure, the political privilege is mine.

February 20, 2010

Before I moved to Islington two years ago I had always lived in safe seats – constituencies where political campaigning is generally considered to be pointless.

Things here though are very different. I now reside in both a parliamentary constituency and a council ward where the upcoming elections (hopefully to be conducted on the same day, Gordo!) are going to be extremely close fights. 

Every single vote counts. There is zilch room for complacency. The happy result of this state of affairs is that my Labour MP, Emily Thornberry, is very hardworking and my Labour councillors have helped formulate a bold policy programme that they would implement if the party regained control of Islington Town Hall. Even when things nationally are looking bleak and uninspiring, the local political struggle is invigorating.

The resurgence of the Conservatives under David Cameron has also made things around here less predictable. Politics in Islington has traditionally been a contest between Labour and the Liberals, but the Tories have emerged as an unwelcome presence in the election results!

Middle-class anti-Labour voters who may have previously voted Liberal Democrat now seem to be turning blue in increasing numbers. This could help Thornberry hold on at the parliamentary level (Islington will not be returning a Conservative MP anytime soon) but there is a nasty danger that an anti-Labour vote uniting behind the Tories could unseat my Labour councillors. I really have very little idea what will happen on May 6th. Will I wake up the next day with a Labour or a Lib Dem MP? With Tory or Labour councillors?

What a wacky situation! But it is so much more preferable to the mundane consistency of political life in a safe seat.

Cathy Ashton Google mentalism.

February 20, 2010

Cathy Ashton – everybody’s favourite election-dodging Labour peer who went from low-profile technocrat to fairly high-profile Eurocrat – was the subject of a Google search I conducted the other day.

I had only typed in ‘Cathy Ashton’ when Google automatically suggested some popular searches. Of course the largest number of search results is 806,000 for ‘Cathy Ashton EU’. Predictable. I was more bemused to see that the second highest was ‘Cathy Ashton Jewish’ (401,000 results) closely followed by ‘Cathy Ashton Communist’ (315,000 results) and ‘Cathy Ashton Bilderberg’ (181,000 results).

There are also 139,000 results for ‘Cathy Ashton Dalek’. I initially wondered whether Google-addicted conspiracy nuts were convinced that Cathy Ashton was part of a Jewish-Communist conspiracy, operating through the Bilderberg group, to use the EU and a force of Dalek mercenaries to take over the planet. But then I remembered that Cathy Ashton is known to be a massive Doctor Who fan and apparently has a life-size Dalek in her sitting room.

Nowt wrong with being illiberal when necessary.

February 17, 2010

I’ve only just got round to reading yesterday’s Labour List interview with James Purnell, the former Cabinet member who keeps popping up in the media to remind us that he still exists and to try to prove that he’s a brainy hope for Labour’s future.  

In the interview Mr Purnell is talking about inequality and is asked to give his thoughts on the possibility of a High Pay Commission. He replies:

I think a cap on high pay would be illiberal and probably counter-productive. I think the idea of Government – or anybody – deciding what the maximum pay should be is too much of an interference in the ability of society and the market to run themselves.

I was somewhat surprised to see Purnell express distaste for “illiberal” measures. As Work and Pensions Secretary he spent much of his time promising to get tough on welfare claimants, talking about “penalising” people who did not try hard enough to find jobs, instigating crackdowns, etc.

And of course he was for many years part of a Government that pursued numerous policies decried in Guardian editorials as illiberal (i.e. ID cards, terrorist suspect detention without trial, ASBOs).

Some of these policies I support, some I don’t, but that’s not the point. When it comes to discussing Labour’s approach to economic inequality I think it’s a bit of a cop out to get scared of illiberal ideas.

If we are supposed to be socialists/social democrats (I suspect Purnell is very enthusiastic about the ideologically bland term ‘progressive’ and describes himself as such with great vigour) then this means we put the interests of the many before the few and shouldn’t get our knickers in too much of twist over illiberalism.

Being frightened of excessive interference with “society and the market” has meant that after many years of Labour Government we are still in a situation where a tiny percentage of the population own a hefty great chunk of the nation’s wealth while 4 million children are living below the poverty line.

If a Labourite wanted to convince me that a High Pay Commission would be a very bad idea, I would want to hear other, more practical arguments being put forward. 

For example, if a Government clampdown on high wages meant there would be a significant exodus of business talent and investment which would harm the UK’s economic performance then this would obviously make me think twice about the proposal.

Or if the Labourite produced some polling evidence suggesting that introducing the High Pay Commission would harm Labour’s electoral chances in key marginals then of course it would clearly be problematic.

But criticising the High Pay Commission idea as illiberal does not do the trick. It instead betrays a ridiculous lack of selfawareness considering the illiberalism that is accepted in other policy areas and it suggests a lack of genuine committment to tackling inequality.

I still find James Purnell thoroughly unconvincing.

Some tourism before going back to fighting terrorism.

February 16, 2010

The other day whilst working at the Imperial War Museum (as I occasionally do) a British army officer arrived with a group of slightly bewildered-looking men.

He announced that they were Afghan soldiers who had been brought over to the UK for military training and a spot of sightseeing. A couple of them had cameras and were eagerly taking snaps of all the guns and tanks – though you’d think they’d get enough of that stuff in Afghanistan!

Hopefully hanging around in London didn’t freak them out too much. It would obviously be slightly counterproductive to invite Afghan troops to visit the UK as part of a ‘hearts’n’minds’ operation only to have them decide that the West genuinely is morally corrupt, decadent, awful, etc and that life under the Taliban again would be far more preferable.

It’s nice to think that the Afghan visitors will go back to their country and have positive things to say about Britain. They could maybe tell their friends, families, and colleagues about what they saw and liked. Obviously the Afghan people have to shape their own future, but I for one hope they will be able to build a society based on democracy, tolerance and pluralism.

And perhaps one day Afghans will have to go their own Afghan War Museum if they want to find out what a tank or a bomb look like.

Some words of wisdom for Labour’s candidate in Newton Abbot.

February 15, 2010

The world of politics has been rocked by the news that Labour’s PPC for the newly created constituency of Newton Abbot in Devon is resigning his candidacy.

He is apparently miffed that the Labour Party want to devote resources to other seats where there might actually be a chance of Labour winning. Activists are being told not to hang around in Newton Abbot but to go to Exeter.

As someone who spent the early years of my Labour Party membership living in a rural, solidly Tory area, I thought all Labour people standing in such constituencies accepted that they were essentially paper candidates and that the best use of their time would be to support their comrades in more marginal places.

As is the case for many things in life, Nye Bevan hit it on the head:

“The language of priorities is the religion of socialism”.

Have a think about that and stop making such a fuss, Mr Ex-PPC.