Finding It Hard To Care

September 22, 2009

If, like me, you head for the sport section of the newspaper first, avoiding the puddle-deep ‘he-said, she-said’ gossip that passes for serious political journalism, you may have come across the howls of outrage from the likes of Mark Hughes over Manchester United’s very late winner against Manchester City on Sunday.

For those unfamiliar with the events that unfolded, after a thrilling 90 minutes with the local rivals locked at 3-3, the fourth official indicated that at least four minutes should be added on.  United’s Michael Owen scored the winner in the sixth minute of injury time.

Now, it is hardly an unusual event for Manchester United to be given a little more time than other teams to turn one point into three, and for their media apologists to come up with all sorts of contorted calculations to suggest why so long was added on.  What is unusual is the general sympathy towards Manchester City.

This wasn’t a plucky lower or non-league side that Manchester United scraped past, but a team owned by a billionaire who have spent, by my calculations, around £190 million on new players in 2009 alone.  I find it hard to care that a minor has been done to them, when the structural injustices and inequalities in football mean that clubs lower down the pyramid find it hard to survive, fans of the top clubs are priced out of games, and players outside the rarified echelons face a short career without riches to sustain them when it ends in their mid-thirties.

This doesn’t seem to be an isolated phenomenon.  In the mainstream media there are regular articles outlining the plight of women working in executive positions in corporations or the City, about how they don’t earn as much as their male counterparts or passed over for promotion to boardroom.  I find it hard to care.

You will rarely see an article about the fact that many women can only get part-time, very low paid, insecure work, and that they are subject to the bullying of management on a daily basis.  I even saw a female worker, who was only offered part-time hours, being berated by her manager for asking to swap shifts so she could go to the second job she was compelled to take to make ends meet.  Trade unionists, particularly in the retail sector, will be able to recall countless versions of the pattern of bullying that affects female workers in particular, not restricted to the sacking of pregnant women and victimisation for taking time off for health and family matters.

Of course, this is not restricted to women, and as a man I have experienced and seen oppressive, exploitative and unpleasant managers and employers.  It’s a class issue, us v them, and those women in the City who bleat about only getting £200 grand a year instead of £300 grand are the enemy, not an ally of working class feminists.

The mainstream media play a useful propaganda role without realising it.  They furnish us constantly with tales that invite us to sympathise with the difficult lot of the rich and powerful.  This is not down to any sinister conspiracy or overt cynicism on the part of journalists, but a reflection of their class background and current social status.

A revealing study conducted by the Sutton Trust, which aims to help working class children get into the leading universities:

“found that leading news and current affairs journalists – those figures who are so central in shaping public opinion and national debate – are more likely than not to have been to independent schools which educate just 7% of the population. Of the top 100 journalists in 2006, 54% were independently educated an increase from 49% in 1986…1986, and in 2006 just 14% of the leading figures in journalism had been to comprehensive schools, which now educate almost 90% of children.”

Is it any wonder that national newspapers, radio and television pump out so much class-biased nonsense?

But that isn’t entirely the picture.  The fact that the ’embedding’ of reporters in military units leads to overwhelmingly skewed coverage is generally realised (if not stated that often by the organisations that do it, or benefit from it).  The ’embedding’ of reporters in the Westminster Village and the City is less obvious, though the constant lunching with senior politicians, civil servants and financial sector detritus is clearly going to engender a sympathy and solidarity for the world views of those people.

We are constantly invited to swallow our objections to various measures because to not do them would make these masters of the universe unhappy.  Steve Richards of the Independent, a shameless New Labour propagandist, once advised us to accept the loss of civil liberties, lest the lack of authoritarian measures give the likes of Jack Straw sleepless nights, fearing they would be blamed for any terrorist attacks!

As ever, I try to look for answers.  An independent, pro-worker media is clearly essential, as is the constant harrying of the mainstream media.  Most left parties have their own newspapers and web presence, and some of their members have blogs.  The value of this is incalculable, but the idea of a general non-sectarian left media that has been proposed by many others on countless occasions would be an important addition.  While it would be obviously quite difficult to gain a hearing alongside the more established corporate and State media outlets, it would be worth trying.

This would mean pooling the resources not just of political parties, but unions and other campaign groups, to found a web portal, newspaper, radio station and TV channel.  Founding a radio station and TV channel may sound grand, but in the days of digital radio and multi-channel TV, is not nearly as expensive as it once was.  It would require a commitment to non-sectarian, democratic, open and collaborative ways of working, which is not something parts of the Left have been renowned for, but might have to learn to try.


Public Sector Waste

September 18, 2009

It’s pretty obvious that, as Seumas Milne has pointed out, the focus put on public spending cuts by the Tories has succeeded in diverting the political debate away from the inherent instability of capitalism (and neo-liberal capitalism in particular) and the crimes of the banks towards the need to clear the debt by slashing public spending.

Labour, of course, after putting out mixed messages over the summer, has acquiesced to this agenda.  This is only natural given that they now share the same fundamental world view as the Tories.

The Left does need to continue to point out that cuts would not be painless as is suggested, and that they would mean workers paying for the folly and greed of the bankers and the capitalist system as a whole.

But as always, we don’t set the agenda, the capitalist parties and the capitalist media (the BBC included, being a semi-autonomous arm of the capitalist State) do.  This means that we have to respond to the questions and situations posed by that agenda.  The ‘common sense’ position being spouted by all three main parties, and in general the media as a whole, is that the national debt is too large, and needs to be reduced to make it more manageable.  Spending cuts and, to a lesser extent, tax rises are posed as the only way to do this.

The Tories are positively salivating at the mouth at the prospect of cuts.  The dirty little secret is that despite occasional hints that they will agonise over every cut, Labour are relishing it somewhat as well.  New Labourites get a special little glint in their eye when they are doing something that is Right Wing and that will be perceived to be ‘tough’, and proving that they can be ruthless slash and burners will give the likes of Mandelson a warm fuzzy feeling inside, to last them until they take up their lucrative directorships next Summer.

So how do we respond to the talk of cuts?  We make our arguments as always, and also point out that countries such as France and Germany, which threw even more money at bailing out their economies, and have no immediate plans to clear the debts, are already out of recession, and have not experienced the levels of job losses that the US and Britain have.

We can also point out that there are plenty of measures to reduce spending that the main parties don’t consider, but would be popular and effective.  Scrapping Trident and ID cards are the two most obvious measures, as is a complete ban on public bodies paying outside consultants, who usually only recommend job cuts and are largely ignorant bullshit-merchants.

In the NHS, the sheer cost associated with the operating and regulation of a market can be swept away by abolishing that market.  The PFI hospitals and companies could be nationalised without compensation, as should the pharmaceutical companies, who overcharge massively for drugs, and whose efforts at introducing and aggressively implementing intellectual property restrictions on medicines condemn millions to an early grave.

In education, again PFI can be despatched, and also the exam boards nationalised.  Exam costs take up an unjustifiably high proportion of school budgets, and this money could be freed up to provide more teachers, technology, equipment and books.

The expensive plans to monitor every single citizen either by CCTV cameras (which don’t reduce crime) or by paranoid vetting procedures could also go, and the legalisation of drugs would not only reduce the costs associated with prohibition, of crime, enforcement of drug laws and imprisonment, and damage to health, but also provide a stream of income from the taxation of the narcotics, sold on licensed premises as alcohol is.

Defence is a budget we could gladly take not a scalpel, but a meat cleaver to, with cuts here accompanied by a complete withdrawal from foreign lands, including Germany and Cyprus as well as Iraq and Afghanistan.  The subsidising of the murderous arms industry can end as well.

The transport budget can certainly go further than it does at the moment, and a good way of doing that would be the nationalisation of the railways and buses.  Not only do they cost more for the passenger in private hands, they cost more to subsidise, as millions are inevitably shovelled into shareholders pockets.

As for welfare, we should always defend the benefits that exist, and seek to improve them, as they are at insultingly low levels.  But we can make the argument that if work were shared out on the basis of full employment, the budget for this department would shrink.  It’s worth bearing in mind that the social security budget rocketed under the Tories in the 1980s, and is a sign of a damaged society, with millions permanently on the scrapheap.

There is scope to raise money also, and this can be done by properly nationalising the banks that were given State aid, and not paying out any bonuses.  A State monopoly of foreign trade combined with sharply progressive taxation of individuals and businesses would also contribute.

We should agree that there is a tremendous amount of money wasted in the public sector.  But it is wasted on profiteering spivs, not the wages and pensions of hard working public servants.

The problem with all these measures is that no Government under capitalism will be allowed to carry out such a programme, it would be cut short before you can say ‘military coup’.  The greatest thing the Left can do is to take our very reasonable suggestions to workers, responding pro-actively to an agenda not of our own making, and point out that none of the main parties would do it, and even if they tried to, the system would never let them.

How to be unpopular

August 14, 2009

At the moment a lot of what the Left stands for and speaks out at is popular.  We are swimming with the tide when we denounce free market neoliberalism, the war in Afghanistan, defend the NHS from Tory attacks, and laugh at David Cameron squirming in his tetchy defence of his party’s position on the NHS.

Whether this is doing us any good, in terms of our ideas spreading and being taken up, is debatable.  The Vestas occupation was a spontaneous act by the workforce, and even when you consider the disputes that the Left has played a key role in, such as Visteon and Lindsey, the general reaction to job cuts and reduction of hours has been grudging acceptance.

In times when we are looking to use the fact that much of what we are saying (like workers control of banks) doesn’t sound outlandish or strange, should we take the risk and voice opinions that are likely to be viewed as extreme or weird?  If not now, then when?  When there is no audience for socialist ideas?

I have to say, this is a problematic one, do we go for the ‘radical honesty’ of the CPGB, or the avoidance of certain issues like drugs and assisted suicide like many other Left organisations?  I think neither, though I don’t pretend to offer a real solution, more a series of thoughts that hopefully people will react to and develop.

I think the problem with the CPGB’s approach is that they put forward positions, such as the right to bear arms, that are fairly abstract and are not the sort of thing that most people talk about.  As it happens, I broadly agree with them on the right to bear arms, as I don’t believe that a State monopoly of arms is desirable, and I don’t believe that guns kill people, rather the other determinants and causes of crime working through individuals.

To raise the point is foolish though, as being the correct thing to say doesn’t mean you should go about saying it – water has the formula H2O, but it would be a little odd to devote countless articles in a newspaper (or the Weekly Worker, whichever applies) to the fact, as it is largely irrelevant when there are so many things to talk about – workplace democracy, getting the private sector out of the NHS, scrapping Trident etc., where we can be correct, relevant, and link them to other arguments.

If I was asked about my position on the right to bear arms, I would state my position truthfully, regardless of the views of who I’m talking to.  In a country where probably the majority of workers support strict control on guns, to do otherwise would be opportunistic yet unproductive, as it would mean missing an opportunity to discuss the nature of the State,  and the real causes of crime.

Drugs is another one, and this is where the major Left parties keep quiet.  Now, I don’t know whether this is because their position is to maintain the status quo or to legalise the purchase and consumption of currently illegal drugs, perhaps through licensed shops in the same way as alcohol.  For some it may be the former, perhaps because of effects of the sale and taking of drugs on individuals and communities.  If it’s the latter, a position I hold, why are they keeping quiet?

I think it is because the perception is that it would be very unpopular if they advocated legalisation.  It may be, but it can be presented as a means of undermining organised crime, decriminalising casual users who cause no harm, raising taxes, reducing harm by guaranteeing purity and dosage, and treating drug addicts as a health problem rather than a criminal one will go some way to helping them, and reducing their need to commit crimes to fund their habit.   It would also really annoy Daily Mail readers, always near the top of the ‘Pros’ column.  The case can be made quite easily, particularly to young people.

Taking a risk in advocating something that might be unpopular, but which you can persuade people to support it is likely to further improve the Left’s image as detached fully from the hypocrisy and stale consensus of mainstream politics.

The secret I think lies in being relevant, not getting ahead of yourself, and having the courage of your convictions to put forward a position that won’t be immediately popular.  Workers will not put up with airy-fairy ideas that sound as if they were cooked up at 1 in the morning in a student house with a suspicious smell and enough empty pizza boxes to block out the light from the street.  If we are going to put forward an unpopular position we need to gather all the evidence and examples we can to put forward the case, and put forward practical suggestions that could be implemented tomorrow.

By coming out with unpopular ideas we could well improve our image as straight talkers, change ideas about particular issues and open up opportunities to discuss deeper issues underlying them.   As with most things it’s about getting the balance right, regularly talking to other workers so you don’t get distracted by unimportant matters, and being honest.  And not being afraid of getting it wrong, so long as we’re prepared to admit it when we do.

That might be a little difficult for the likes of the SWP, of course.  If George Washington had been a member of the SWP, when confronted by his father over the felled cherry tree with an axe in his hand, he would have denied that there was a cherry tree there, then claimed it had always been lying like that, then would have angrily denounced his father for distracting from the urgent need to defeat the fascists.

It’s no wonder they are in the state that they are in, when they can’t even acknowledge certain home truths themselves, let alone be honest with the rest of the Left or the wider working class.

The trap of ultra-leftism

July 17, 2009

A critical step in developing a socialist viewpoint is the realisation that the key problems in society cannot be solved while capitalism exists, that capitalism needs to be done away with and replaced with a radical democracy with planning at all levels.

The problem is that in order to get to that situation we cannot fall into the trap of appearing to be abstract and irrelevant.  In order to do this we effectively have to act as both revolutionaries and reformists, posing the destruction of the social system on one hand, and advocating changes within the system on the other, in order to gain credibility and support for our ideas and actions.

It was said by Engels that an ounce of action is worth a ton of theory, and this is undoubtedly true, provided it is not misinterpreted as a ‘know-nothing’ approach to politics, as abandoning theory, ideas and argument can only lead to accepting ‘common sense’ or conventional wisdom and an inexorable drift to the Right.  I often laugh when bourgeois thinkers claim that they have no ideology or preconceptions.  They have internalised the orthodox values of the status quo, and elevated them some some timeless, neutral position.

In an intellectual sense, it is dishonest (though not necessarily wilfully so), and dangerous, because an acknowledgement of biases and general assumptions is essential to avoiding dogmatism and building arguments on a framework of your pre-existing ideas, rather than using those ideas to help analyse new phenomena and evidence, to construct theory and recommendations for action based on facts and objective reality rather than twisting and selecting information that best fits preconceived ideas.

I don’t think the Left has much trouble in acknowledging the importance of theory or the philosophical basis of it’s theorising.  I do think that some groups get the balance wrong, and fail to understand that the relationship between theory and action is a dialectical one, not one which flows in one direction, from theory to action.  It is all very well having pristine theoretical outlines and prescriptions, but these have to be tested in action, and modified according to the experiences of that action.

A prime example of the importance of this can be seen in the political outlook of the Communist Party of Great Britain, a marginal ultra-left sect with an overblown opinion of its own importance, mainly due to the fact it publishes the much read (but little bought) Weekly Worker, which, excellent coverage of events in Iran notwithstanding, is the Heat magazine of the far-left in Britain.

Aside from some of the baffling editorial decisions made in the Weekly Worker (not for them coverage of the postal strikes or Afghanistan this week, but the anniversary of the Moon landings), their coverage is dominated by people who seem to spend a lot of time reading and writing, but not much time actually getting active in campaigns and the labour movement.

The tone that results is an otherworldly analysis of the positions and events of other parties, usually concluding in the ‘correct’ Marxist analysis provided by one of the CPGB gurus, who avoid the pitfalls of economism and opportunism that seemingly befoul the rest of the Left.

The fact that their ideas are never tested on picket lines, in workplaces or other arenas where their elaborate positions would be exposed to vigorous scrutiny and ridicule, means they are only ever criticised by other Lefts, who can be dismissed as they have strayed from the critical tenets of Marxism.

Some of the results of this have been hilarous.  I look forward to the regular finger wagging of Dave Vincent, a PCS member who continually warns the ruling broad left that their supposed craven opportunism and rightward drift is bound to let the Right wing back in to office.  One recent missive, which had the air of a clever spoof, made this admonishment after the Left had actually made gains on an already impressive base in the National Executive elections, with the wise Comrade Vincent, who clearly strikes a chord with the PCS rank and file, improving from bottom of the pile to second bottom.

The position on No2EU was utterly baffling, and seems to have generated some ructions within the sect.  First they started out with critical support, a fairly reasonable position, consistent with their critical support of the Lindsey strikes.  But then they decided to set ‘tests’ to various No2EU candidates, or at least the ones who would talk to them, namely four Socialist Party members and Dave Hill of the ISG.

These tests were, quite arbitrarily, on the question of ‘fortress Britain’ and bizarrely, the right to bear arms.  It was deemed that No2EU failed these tests, so jaw-droppingly they opted to call for a Labour vote instead, that party well known for its progressive views on immigration and opposition to gun control.

I don’t intend this to be a lengthy critique of the eccentricities of one ultra-left sect, more a cautionary tale.  Left groups and their members need to get dirty, even if the campaign or movement they get involved seems to have politics that are less than pure, or even particularly dodgy.  If you believed the bourgeois media about Lindsey (the SWP did), it was a nationalist strike.  Other Left groups decided to go down there and judge for themselves, and made the correct call after they did.

More than anything, we need to open our ears and listen not just to other Leftists, but other workers, who often have a complex set of views that don’t fit into a box.  Once we’ve listened, then we can make our comments, dealing with their concerns and interests, and broadening it out to the big picture, hopefully setting them on the way to looking at the system itself as a problem.  We can’t do that if we go along with pre-determined theories that are incapable of being altered and moulded, even awkwardly and uncomfortably, by reality, or by bypassing reality altogether.

Battle lines have been drawn

July 10, 2009

It was bound to happen at some point.  While there is no official version of events yet, various statements and media reports suggest that, after months of ongoing, disgusting abuse, teacher Peter Harvey snapped and attacked a pupil, Jack Waterhouse.  What is interesting is the polarisation of reaction to the event.  As now seems customary, rival Facebook groups have been established, with the energetic deletion of dissenting views.

In a few groups, there is great sympathy for Peter Harvey.  This seems to be replicated on the online forums of the Times Educational Supplement, and in the reaction of many current and former pupils of All Saints’ Roman Catholic School, who intend to leaflet the school in support of Harvey at 3.30pm today.

On the other hand, there is outright condemnation to be found where the focus is on Jack Waterhouse.

I don’t wish to get involved in debating the minutiae of an event (or the events that preceded it), except to wish Jack Waterhouse a full recovery, and for the relevant authorities to be humane and merciful in their treatment of Peter Harvey, who by all accounts was a popular teacher pushed to the edge by stress, ill-health and the appalling behaviour of the pupils in his class.

I do wish to focus on what this incident, and the consequent reaction, means for the Left.  The reaction has not polarised in a teachers/adults vs pupils manner.  Rather it seems to be only a sub-group of pupils that is condemning outright Peter Harvey.  Judging by some of the attitudes on display, the view of good teaching is not dedication and the committment and ability to expand horizons and help fulfil potential.  No, “nice teachers dont assault pupils nice teachers hand out sweets and make you watch films insted of work..[sic]”.

It doesn’t do the left any good to pretend that the attitudes of a significant section of the school population stink.  The constant invokation of ‘rights’ and selfish disregard for anyone else (be they other pupils or teachers) is prevalent in many classrooms.  As is the baiting of teachers, who have little real power over pupils.

A few weeks ago, the excellent Left Luggage website drew attention to an interesting document produced by the IWCA.  In it, they analyse the rise, as a consequence of neo-liberalism, of the lumpen element, often described in the bourgeois press as the ‘underclass’.  The IWCA document identifies this group as a “new -and growing- social formation that has willingly embraced a non-work ethic… that is quite separate from, and actively hostile to, the interests and well-being of the working class proper.”

I make no apologies for quoting extensively the following:

“Why this is important politically is that once a lumpen mentality is allowed to take root over a generation or more, a pattern is set seemingly for other socio/ political relationships too. In place of civic pride, community spirit, or basic empathy and solidarity (none of which have any place in their world) there is instead an over-developed sense of individual entitlement combined with a perverse pride in subverting a core socialist tenet: ‘you only take out exactly what you’ve put in’.

It follows that outside of what affects them directly as individuals or maybe immediate family there is a malign indifference. After all what is society to them, or they to society?

All told, the corrupting consequences of the no-work ethic appear to be numerous and hardwired. A knock-on consequence is that many ordinary working class communities become blighted by a not dissimilar contagion…

…Consequently with the arrival of each new generation previously identifiable working class ideals are eroded or displaced, while ‘lumpen’ characteristics typified by a venal and brazen opportunism seem to become ever more pronounced. In some areas it already appears to be the natural condition.”

The lumpen attitude, as identified by the IWCA, of ‘venal and brazen opportunism’ and the decline of working class ideals, is undoubtedly as a result of the atomisation and decline in traditional working class organisations and institutions.  This has in turn led to a decline in the working class values identified in the quote above, to which I would add the spirit of self and collective improvement.  This does seem to have been a significant factor behind the escalation of problems in the classroom over the last 30 years.

I do have some problems with the IWCA’s analysis, which I hope to analyse in more detail in a future post, and I believe the Government’s focus on exam results as the main measurement of the quality of education and consequent policies has also had an incredibly damaging part to play.  But for now, I think the part of the IWCA analysis I have quoted enlightens and informs the debate.

Teachers face rising problems, and schools by themselves do not have the ability to deal with the social conditions breeding them.  They do try to accommodate and deal with them though, a sticking plaster which simply leaves teachers unable to teach as effectively as they would wish and pupils subjected to the selfish, destructive behaviour of some of their peers.

I don’t write this as a middle-aged, middle-class reactionary, but as a young working class man who believes that the left cannot work to emancipate humanity from capitalism if it cannot emancipate itself of blinkers.  The solution to social problems manifesting themselves in classroom problems is not necessarily to call for the expelling or disciplining of pupils (and parents) more difficult.  This is an understandable, but counter-productive response to the realisation that it may not be the ‘fault’ of the individual trouble maker that they are so troublesome, with the fault lying with the vague ‘society’.

The solution is to acknowledge that these problems cannot be dealt with in schools, but only by a fundamental change in society involving a radicalisation of the working class.  There is no solution under capitalism.  What seems most effective is a twin-track approach of building opposition to capitalism while pursuing policies within a classroom or school that ensure that the needs of the majority are not hampered or denied by the behaviour and actions of a minority.

It needs to be acknowledged that workers and their families demand fairness, the cause of which doesn’t seem to be furthered by doing little to sort out problems in the classroom (and the problem’s parents) or be seen to be actively rewarding bad behaviour with trips and one-to-one attention.  Defending this makes the Left look ridiculous, and can only benefit the Right.

The teaching unions should see the unsavoury incident in a classroom in Mansfield as a rallying call to take more militant action to defend teachers, and defend the rights of less troublemaking children to an unhindered education.  The left should see it as a way to make the arguments about why capitalism (particularly of the neoliberal variety) breeds the kind of unacceptable behaviour growing in classrooms and the streets, and why democratic socialism can deal with that.

It is a chance to put clear red water between socialists, with a realistic analysis of social trends and the real solutions to real problems, and liberals who try to deny the problem, or fob off those who want to deal with it.

Privatise this!

July 3, 2009

It’s not been a good week for fans of privatisation.  First Lord Mandy announced, presumably through veils of agonised tears, that the part-privatisation of Royal Mail would not be going ahead as planned, and then the East Coast Mainline had to be taken into public ownership.

Both actions were forced on the Government, but they betray the abject weaknesses of private ownership and control of public services.  With the Royal Mail, the Government claimed that it couldn’t guarantee a decent price for the stake on offer in the current circumstances, but it is doubtful that it will ever be able to sell it for the amount that it is hoping for.  Why?  Because most of the previously money-making operations that Royal Mail performed have been ‘liberalised’ – in other words private companies have been able to cherrypick the best bits.  What remains is the loss-making, unglamorous universal service that we rely on.

Examples abound of privatisations earning the Government very little.  This is either due to the almost corrupt nature of many of them, with senior civil servants involved making an absolute mint (Qinetiq being a prime example of this), or the fact that so many sweeteners need to be offered companies in order for them to bite.

The East Coast Mainline is a failure of a different nature.  The idea of splitting the rail network into franchises was a spurious means of introducing ‘competition’ into what was an efficient, integrated system.  It is spurious because on most routes only one franchise operates, and because the free competition consists of which companies have the better franchise negotiators and ability to lobby Government for fare increases.

Virgin managed to continue to receive subsidies despite their dreadful performance on the West Coast Mainline.  National Express were not so fortunate, having been pressed into committing to pay billions to the Government.

The Government was demanding billions because the cost of the railways has got out of control.  Companies cream off profits, the inefficiencies of fragmentation and the soaring costs of ensuring safety in an industry dominated by organisations putting shareholders before the welfare of the public, have all combined to reach this sorry outcome.

It is an indictment of the pathetic faith that New Labour has in private sector, neoliberal solutions tied to suffocating central control, that they can’t do the obvious and popular – nationalise the railways.  I would prefer that to be under worker-passenger control, but I would settle for BR2.0 at this point.

All of which begs the question, how are we to soothe New Labour’s privatising conscience?  These poor souls have had to nationalise vast swathes of the banking sector, as well as another train franchise.  How can they get back in the game, just to stop them getting rusty?

Believe it or not, I think I have a solution that even socialists can support – privatise the swans.  That’s right.  The entire British swan population is currently owned by the Queen.  Presumably, as with all property and powers of the Queen, these are effectively owned and ran by the Government.

At the moment, swans do nothing but swim around all day, and inflexibly mate with the first pretty long-necked beast they see.  Why not flog them off, perhaps sparking a bidding war between the RSPCA and Bernard Matthews.  There could even be franchises, with the black swans of Dawlish becoming a Kingston Communications style oddity, with the company sponsoring Dawlish Town’s new stadium when they march inexorably towards the Premier League?  I can’t promise to have all the practical details, but I just float the ideas.

If you’re reading this Mandy, get in touch.   I have others.  Privatise the Queen. Think of the MPs pay rise you can fund when a rich Texan stumps up for Her Maj.  Just think about it Mandy.  You know where to get hold of me.

“We don’t hire any English people”

June 9, 2009

The above is a direct quote from a business owner I talked to in my current capacity as a phone monkey cold-calling employers to try and get them to answer questions for a survey over the phone.  While I’m wary of drawing sweeping conclusions from one incident, I am prepared to take it as a symptomatic attitude of many in the boss class.  It is certainly not the first time I have heard such sentiments, either over the phone or face to face, but the statement was shocking in it’s frankness and lack of shame.

It’s an attitude that goes to the heart of why many of those who voted BNP on June 4th did so.  A feeling of being treated as a second class citizen for being English or British.  Often the example is given of social housing provision, that immigrants (often no distinction is made between those seeking asylum and economic migrants, and as a socialist I don’t see an important distinction there either, albeit for different reasons) are given priority over long standing locals.

It is undoubtedly true that preference is given to certain groups, judged to be more ‘vulnerable’ in the slightly patronising bureaucratic jargon.  Given the appalling shortage of social housing (and the near total lack of affordable private rented accommodation), blame if often directed at those who are provided with it, by those who are excluded.  This doesn’t always result in anti-immigrant feeling.  Where I live, you can pretty much count the number of immigrants (from outside Britain) on the fingers on a couple of hands.  So single mothers generally bear the brunt.

But where there do exist sizeable numbers of immigrants, and the lack of a sizeable political party pushing the perspective that greater social housing provision is needed rather than scrapping over an inadequate number, the issue of housing becomes an issue of immigration, and ultimately of race.  This is where the likes of the BNP have made hay.  The other is jobs.

Gordon Brown cynically played the nationalist card with his ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ speech.  The BNP were elected with a tagline which echoed this slogan, and printed the phrase on their leaflets, notoriously above a picture of American workers seemingly reenacting a Village People video.  They tried to intervene in the strike wave earlier this year, which kicked off at Lindsey Oil Refinery, when the slogan appeared on some signs at the pickets.  But they were sent packing with a flea in their ear.

The Lindsey strikes highlighted a key divide in the far-left.  There appear to be two different perspectives on the question of immigration, one a Marxist approach, the other a more liberal approach.  The Marxist approach was to recognise the grievance of the workers – namely that they were being discriminated against because to hire overseas workers would allow the contractor to undercut the national agreement, and undermine union organisation.  The Marxist approach was to recognise the movement as a developing one that with the correct arguments could be won over to working class internationalism.

This approach, which was taken to great effect in practice by the Socialist Party, and by the other members of the elected strike committee, won a victory for the workforce, British and non-British, particularly on the question of foreign workers joining the union and being employed in accordance with the national agreement.  The approach recognise that the grievance was legitimate, and posed a course of action to unite local and migrant workers, the better to jointly fight for a bigger piece of the pie from the bosses.  I apologise if I miss anyone here, but it  the other left groups supporting this approach included the Independent Working Class Association, the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Commune.

The liberal approach was to focus on some of the slogans printed on boards, and concentrate energies on denouncing them.  The SWP pioneered this approach with the Lindsey strike wave, and also when they decided to turn up to a picket, tried to snatch a Union Jack off one of the workers.  This approach failed, though when a non-SWPer had a word with the flag wielder, it emerged that he had not brought it along for nationalist purposes, and put it away when he was made aware that it could be used to try and portray the strike as nationalist.

The SWP also picked up on a reference by one picketer to ‘Eyeties’, relying on a deliberately distorted in a BBC article.  The full quote makes it clear that the ‘Eyeties’ were in fact referred to in a positive light.  The SWP’s internationalism at Lindsey was the internationalism of multinationals, not the working class.  They simply focused on a simplistic ‘no borders’ position, without putting due emphasis on the use of immigrant labour by employers to suppress wages and trade union organisation and because immigrants can often be exploited to an even greater extent than British workers.

Which brings me back to the quote at the top.  The parasite in question who said this to me went on to elaborate that the reason was that Eastern European workers have a greater ‘work ethic’.  Translated, this of course means that they are willing to work more, for less, and put up with more crap from above them.   This we need to oppose, and oppose in the same way as they did at Lindsey.  Critically we need to take hiring and firing out of the hands of the employers, and in the hands of the unions.  This guarantees that work is shared out, and given only to those in a union, thus maintaining union organisation, and national agreements.  It also strengthens organised labour’s hand in any collective bargaining and strikes.

This industrial work needs to be linked up, as Bob Crow said yesterday, with political work, to make the arguments for a reduction in the working week, abolition of the anti-trade union laws, a mass council house building programme, action against second homes, more progressive taxation, and other measures critical not just to the immediate interests of working class people, but the long term interest in destroying the growth of racism and fascism.