Monthly Archives: February 2011

Porter’s parting shot at the left

by Edd Mustill

“Withdraw your children from the streets. They are drugging your children, they are making your children drunk and sending them to hell.”

Muammar Gaddafi
Aaron Porter

Today’s interview with outgoing NUS president Aaron Porter in G2 reveals a lot about his political approach, and that of the Labourite groups which have run NUS since humankind crawled out of the sea.

He dismisses the tactics of the left as “still incredibly irrelevant, outdated and frankly tired, and if these people think that’s the way to get their point across then I frankly think they are deluded.”

Anyone who has been involved in student politics will recognise this as a common tactic: dividing people into sensible, right-minded moderates and insane revolutionaries. Imagine being a revolutionary, eh? You’d have to be crazy. So anything revolutionaries say is crazy. End of. The left is not made up of “ordinary students” but sinister political operatives, doing things only for their own end. In this interview, Porter goes further and includes the Guardian newspaper as part of this agenda.

Porter is no doubt correct to say that a general radicalisation of students has not occurred, but to dismiss everything that has happened since November so lightly is the mark of a man detached from political reality.

More than anything, the approach of the right in NUS is, and has been for a long time, incredibly dogmatic. The line goes like this: Students don’t want rhetoric. Students are not political. Students are fed up of radical posturing and support responsible, constructive criticism of government policy.

The idea that an “effective campaign” is something that plays well in the media is a poisonous one, and too often influences people on the left as well. Remember that the attack on Millbank got nothing but hostility from the press, but without it a movement on the scale of what we saw before Christmas would have been very unlikely.

Porter praises the Egyptian protests and says he has more sympathy with the Poll Tax protests of the early ’90s, than the Millbank protest. Never mind that the Poll Tax protesters smashed up a lot of the West End in a much more indiscriminate fashion than the vandalism at Tory HQ. What he’s really hiding behind is the old moderate axiom: I support genuine protest that I don’t have to deal with or take responsibility for. Things that occur, for example, thousands of miles away or many years ago.

Ultimately, it is the paucity of Porter’s politics that have led to his demise.

The following quote reveals all we need to know about his political skill. Challenged by Decca Aitkenhead about the inadequacy of the NUS’s anti-fees campaign, he says: “The preferred outcome from the pledge would’ve been that the Liberal Democrats stuck to it – but they didn’t.”

British student politics has not lost a world-class political mind.

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Colonel Gaddafi and the UDA

by nineteensixtyseven

Nearly everyone is aware that Gaddafi funded the Provos but fewer are aware of another typically misinformed involvement in the Northern Irish paramilitary underground.  The story is bizarre and, as far as I know, relatively little is known about it.

In the aftermath of the Ulster Workers’ Council (UWC) strike of May 1974, which brought down the power-sharing Executive established following the Sunningdale Agreement, loyalist paramilitaries got an inkling that perhaps they didn’t need to look towards Unionist politicians any longer.  As Hugh Smyth, later of the Progressive Unionist Party, said, the UWC victory “belonged to the workers and not to the politicians who did not declare their hand until it became clear that the workers were going to win.” Of course, this is to romanticise the so-called ‘strike’ by presenting it as some sort of spontaneous expression of working-class consciousness, when in fact it was initially a narrowly-based coup d’etat planned as early as the previous autumn by a self-selecting committee of paramilitary leaders.  Nevertheless, it was loyalist trade unionists such as Hugh Petrie and members of the UDA and the UVF which made the ‘strike’ possible, not Ian Paisley or Bill Craig.

It briefly looked as if loyalism could establish its own political organisations independent of the Unionist Party, the DUP and Bill Craig’s Vanguard Unionist Party.  The politicians who were trying to reap the benefits of the strike, too, had for a long time been uneasy with public  association with paramilitaries (private was fine) but their intentions were to marginalise the paramilitary influence within their organisations rather than have the gunmen form parties of their own.  To continue the loyalist momentum, UWC members looked towards maintaining the Ulster Action Council structures which had been established in 1973.  However, just over a month after the strike, the UVF had left and some elements within it formed the Volunteer Political Party.

It was in this context of post-strike rivalry that the senior UWC member Glenn Barr and three other UDA men went to Libya in November 1974.  Steve Bruce has written that the trip was the initiative a consortium of Irish businessmen who were interested in securing Libyan involvement in exploiting oil reserves off the Irish coast.  As Gaddafi was giving arms to the Provisional IRA, the businessmen thought that if they invited the UDA to Tripoli as a counter-weight it would somehow ease the fears of the anti-republican Fine Gael/Labour government then in power in the Irish Republic.  The UDA spent a week explaining Irish politics to the confused Libyans (allegedly Gaddafi thought the UWC strike was an anti-imperialist general strike against the British), no doubt providing an alternative narrative to that given to the dictator by Joe Cahill a few years before.

The UDA men, however, were furious when, on their return, the ‘respectable’ politicians accused them of having secret negotiations with the Provos and used the Libyan trip to slam them in the press.  The UVF, too, made threatening noises about their former UWC colleagues.  In the event, the established loyalist parties under the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC) umbrella were to dominate the 1975 Constitutional Convention elections and the paramilitary candidates failed to reach 1%.  This seems to validate Bruce’s comment that,  ‘Ulster Protestants had an implicit sense of a division of labour. Politicians did politics and paramilitaries did muscle…’  Gaddafi’s endorsement can hardly have helped though.

On a slightly related note, sect-watchers will have noticed the Workers’ Revolutionary Party’s nauseating editorial on the situation in Libya:

We urge the working class of the world to oppose the imperialist intervention into Libya that is being made, and the greater, possibly military intervention to come into the affairs of the Libyan people.

We urge the Libyan masses and youth to take their stand alongside Colonel Gadaffi to defend the gains of the Libyan revolution, and to develop it.

This can only be done by the defeat of the current rebellion and a major national discussion about the introduction of workers control and management of the Libyan economy and society, as well as the introduction of the political organs for exercising that political control and management.

Further, the Libyan workers must take their place as a leader of the revolutionary wave that is sweeping through North Africa.

This can only win through the establishment of the United Socialist States of North Africa.

Edd wonders whether News Line will cease to publish daily if the Libyan Revolution succeeds…

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Police brutality in Cambridge

by nineteensixtyseven

Here is footage taken after the fourth day of action in Cambridge today. Protestors on their way home from a peaceful demonstration were followed by police, peppersprayed and arrested. The police were repeatedly told by college authorities that they had no right to be on the premises yet disregarded this.

[Footage temporarily taken down, should be up again in due course]

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The TUC: ‘Jobs Growth and Justice’ – Getting it wrong again

By Patrick

On March 26th, the Trades Union Congress are holding a march for ‘Jobs, Growth and Justice’ in London. It should be really big, and there should be lots of interesting things happening afterwards. So we should all go. However, I want to briefly point out the sheer witless stupidity of campaigning for ‘growth’. Demanding jobs and justice makes sense for the TUC, but demanding growth is idiocy. I’ll try and explain why.

‘Growth’ in this context means economic growth – more specifically, it means a quarterly increase in the gross domestic product (GDP), as measured by the Office for National Statistics. GDP is totally meaningless trickery – the measuring of GDP growth is at best a long outdated anachronism, and at worst it deliberately masks the actual way the economy works.

The GDP figure is a measure of the monetary value of all the goods and services produced in the UK over the course of a year. So basically, it is a measure of the price (in pounds) of everything that the population of the UK produce in a year.

Before I go into what these ‘goods and services’ might be, let’s get one thing straight – money is not a magic measure of value. The price of something is determined by the social relation between the person who has the thing, and the person who wants the thing. So if I want a thing, but I don’t want it that much, and there are loads of people willing to sell it to me, then I get it cheap. Similarly, if I want that same thing a year later, but I really need it, and there’s only one person that can produce it and sell it to me, he can charge whatever he wants. Prices of things are expressions of relations, so just adding them all together (as GDP does) is already looking a bit dumb.

But maybe GDP is seeking to measure not the price of everything, but the amount of stuff produced. Let’s assume this, and look at what kind of stuff is produced in the UK. As far as I can tell, the goods and services well produce can be put in three categories:

1. Things with an indisputable value – food, clothes, furniture, machines for moving people and making stuff, TVs, Fridges and so on. All these things have a use value. Another fridge may be less useful if you already have two of them, but we can still be sure that these objects are generally useful to humans in most contexts. These things are produced by manufacturing, which makes up around 12% of the UK economy. Since buildings and roads are kind of useful, we might add construction to this, which makes up around 10% of GDP. Many writers have questioned whether the amount of stuff we produce is a good measure of value – since this may lead to ignoring ecological limits (see Jackson’s ‘Prosperity Without Growth), or it may lead us to produce loads of useless stuff, like big houses and office blocks that no-one can afford (see Ireland’s economic ‘miracle’ crashing and burning). However, less than a third of the UK economy is based on making things, so criticisms of measuring physical production will only scratch the surface if we are to examine the true lunacy of measuring GDP growth. So what else do we make in this country?

2. Services, whose production can signify good or bad things. Think of insurance – it’s a service, and the insurance industry makes up a significant proportion of total UK GDP. If the total number of insurance policies getting sold rises, then this could mean that people are choosing to buy insurance for peace of mind, or to make sure they don’t have to deal with any big risks. This is a good thing. However, a growing insurance industry could also mean that risks are rising, and people are responding to this. If crime goes up, or extreme weather conditions become more frequent, people buy more insurance, but this is indicative of negative developments in society. Either way, more insurance means higher GDP, which means growth, and the TUC is happy. Growth in services like insurance, security, healthcare and psychiatric care could indicate positive OR negative developments in our society, but if we measure GDP, we just measure the growth, regardless of what it actually means.

3. Lastly, this country produces a lot of things that are ONLY useful from the point of view of the person producing them. Take advertising for example – a toothpaste company make adverts (or pays someone to make adverts) so they can take market share from the competition. The competition makes adverts to respond to this, and whoever has the better advert sells more toothpaste. Calculating an aggregate of the adverts made is meaningless, because the adverts are only useful to the company seeking to sell its toothpaste. An advert made by the competition (trying to sell a different, competing toothpaste) has a negative value from the point of view of our illustrious toothpaste seller. All commodities produced to help companies compete against each other cancel each other out in terms of value – making an aggregate of all these commodities is totally meaningless. Advertising, marketing, market research, product research and a whole load of R&D fall under this category – it’s a huge section of the UK’s GDP.

So there we have it – three kinds of commodities, and three reasons why calculating an aggregate of these commodities is totally meaningless. Why can’t the TUC call for ‘Jobs, decent wages, and justice’, or ‘Jobs, shorter hours and justice’, or ‘Jobs, sustainability, and justice’? I’m sure the person who deals with branding at the TUC isn’t stupid, so maybe I’ll write something soon if I work out why…

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Why is the NUS so useless?

Mike Chessum yesterday claimed that, if the NUS stays on the course set by Aaron Porter, ‘there is a risk that it may become terminally sundered’ from the student movement against fees and cuts. This is true, and Chessum’s article is a good one, but he’s forgotten to make one argument clearly, an argument that probably seems so obvious to many on the student left that it doesn’t need making. However, the argument I refer to is crucial, it’s the central plank of left-wing action and politics, and it needs to be re-stated.

The argument goes like this:

Aaron Porter, and his predecessor, Wes Streeting, both believed that ‘lobbying’ and presenting ‘sensible policy’ would win them influence with the government. So the NUS produced a ‘blueprint’ for a graduate tax – a detailed policy paper setting out how a ‘fairer’ funding system would work. The NUS encouraged its members to write to MPs, to speak to them at surgeries, to persuade them that student fees were unreasonable, and that a graduate tax was reasonable, workable, and rational for everyone.

However, when the committee formed to formulate the Browne review of higher education funding, the NUS failed to get a place on it. When the Browne report was published, it argued for higher fees, not a graduate tax. Despite even the fact that one of the governing parties (the Liberal Democrats) were staunch supporters of the graduate tax, legislation was passed to implement the Browne report, not a graduate tax.

At the same time, the NUS tried its best to keep its membership from actively campaigning – NUS conference repeatedly voted down calls for a national demonstration on tuition fees, opposed strikes by university staff, and opposed direct action by students.

Right from the start of the process, the NUS failed. With all the luck in the world (the only mainstream political party to oppose tuition fees actually became part of the government) the NUS failed.

Why did the NUS fail? Because it apparently failed to understand the most simple principle of negotiation – don’t give everything away immediately. If I was haggling over the price of fish, I wouldn’t make my first offer the highest offer I could afford. If I did, I’d end up paying a hell of a lot for my fish, probably far more than I could actually afford.

By campaigning for the third-rate option of the graduate tax, the NUS put students at a disadvantage before the discussion had even really started. By refusing to call for direct action, and by delaying any vocal protest until the last possible opportunity, the NUS put students at a disadvantage going into any negotiation with the government.

However, the NUS leadership are not (despite appearances) stupid. When gunning for election, they are smooth political operators – articulate, efficient and machiavellian. So how could they make such an elementary mistake when negotiating with the government?

Back when we had a Labour government, the answer seemed obvious – nearly every NUS president since the year dot has been a member of Labour Students, and most have gone on to work in the Labour party, or have become Labour MPs. These people wanted to avoid upsetting their future paymasters.

So why would the NUS deliberately sabotage the negotiation process when facing up to a Tory government?

There are a number of possible reasons. Maybe Streeting and Porter really do believe that being ‘reasonable’, appeasing the government, tempering their rhetoric and generally doing what they’re told will somehow give the NUS some influence with the government. This seems unlikely. Maybe the NUS leadership are so committed to representing their membership, that they took an apathetic position, most students being an apathetic bunch. Again, unlikely.

The truth might be a bit more complicated.

It’s frequently noted that the three main political parties espouse basically identical policies. The speed of the cuts they propose may vary, or the particular system of voting they propose may vary, or the extent to which they want to privatise public services may vary, but the similarities are far more numerous than the differences.

All parties have argued that education should be reformed to attract more private investment, all parties (and most university organisations) argue that education should focus on driving economic growth. All parties, and the NUS accept that education should be produced, measured, and consumed as a commodity (one only needs to look at the NUS obsession with the ‘student experience’ to see this). All relevant parties accept that universities can and should be governed by medieval arrangements of elite academics, local businessmen and civil servants.

In order to develop their careers, NUS presidents need to demonstrate their allegiance to neoliberalism itself far more than they need to show their allegiance to a particular political party, or (LoL) to actually demonstrate their competence at representing the interests of their members.

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Stop using the phrase “Big Society”!

by Edd Mustill

Don’t worry. This isn’t one of those over-long and fairly vacuous articles about how the left needs to find language that is “more inclusive,” “less dogmatic,” and so on. I just want to quickly comment on a couple of issues around language and slogans that have been bothering me recently.

1)Stop trying to “reclaim” or “invert” the phrase “Big Society”

If you’ve been on a protest recently you’ll know what I’m on about here. Lot’s of people are carrying placards saying things like “This is what your Big Society looks like.” Even today some UKuncut actions were billed as “the Big Society bail-in.

Stop it. I can see what you’re trying to do. David Cameron supposedly wants people to take control over aspects of their life, and that’s what we’re doing by protesting, so you see, this is our version of the Big Society. But stop it.

The Big Society is a vacuous phrase. You can’t give meaning to it by inverting it or treating it ironically. Engaging with it only legitimises a concept that no-one, even inside the Conservative Party, really takes seriously.

Yes, let’s talk about our class taking control over aspects of society: Our version of the Big Society is called socialism. Can we start to talk about that instead?

2) Aaron Porter is definitely a scab

Since the Second Great Chasing of NUS president Aaron Porter in Glasgow, a certain attitude has been floating around along the lines of: “Let’s not make this personal. We don’t want to resort to personal attacks and bullying. Some of the language used against him has been too strong.” And so on.

I’m sensitive to the fact that we don’t want to make our criticisms of Porter too personal, for the political reason that the problems in NUS go far beyond his personal role and lack of leadership.

This said, he is obviously a scab, and we should call him on this. There is a dispute occurring in British universities over fee levels and funding. He is ostensibly the leader of the students’ union. However, his role has been to attempt to subvert the radical action of students. He has decried and dismissed radical action, his has implicitly made false allegations against his political opponents, and has presided over an NUS leadership which has abandoned the fight against higher fees in stark terms.

“Scab” isn’t a word that should be thrown around lightly, but it is entirely appropriate in Porter’s case.

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Egyptian revolutionary leadership

Al Jazeera English have a short and fascinating documentary on their youtube channel, made before Mubarak’s resignation, about the April 6 Youth Movement’s role in the Egyptian uprising.

The film touches on the group’s relationship with other opposition forces and with the army, its practical direct action training and medical aid, and how it has been influenced by Serbian student group Otpor (where its logo comes from).

Among other things, the film points out that the movement was not completely spontaneous and dates back at least three years to the Mahalla textile strike.

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