Tag Archives: Spending Cuts

Overuse of abstract nouns threatens ‘our way of life’

by Anne Archist

A cyclist has been tackled to the ground by the Olympic ‘Torch Security Team’ (TST to those of us who prefer letters to real words). This follows an old Italian woman trying to touch the torch to bring Italy luck in Euro 2012, two young boys grabbing the torch in Coventry, water-bombs being thrown at the convoy and a protester trying to throw a bucket of water over the torch and more.

In some of these incidents the response of the torch’s minders was fairly reasonable and restrained, while in other cases they and the police massively over-reacted. The response to the cyclist getting too close to the torch is just one example of this; the Leeds bucket protester was arrested and accepted a caution (most likely under threats and intimidation from the police) for an offence under Section 4(presumably 4A) of the Public Order Act as well. For those that don’t know, 4A defines an offence as follows:

A person is guilty of an offence if, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress, he—(a)uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or(b)displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress.

Presumably the ‘disorderly behaviour’ of throwing a bucket of water over the torch was considered to cause people ‘alarm or distress’ – in which case one wonders how they leave the house in the morning.

I think the handling of the security around the Olympic torch tells us a lot about socially-endemic attitudes towards freedom, the rule of law, protest, and so forth. Particularly, the behaviour of the police (of which the current TST is a part) – and the (lack of) response to that behaviour by authorities such as the Greater London Authority, the British Olympic Association and senior police – illustrates the way that power is wielded in our society.

There will, of course, be endless political-philosophical debates in any modern democratic culture about the appropriate balance between freedom and security, between the rights of the individual to do as they wish and the rights of others not to be adversely affected (or ‘harmed’ in J. S. Mill’s terminology) by them, etc. This is something that even the most strong-minded of us have to accept as a fact of life; we may think that our society is too permissive or too authoritarian, but there is at least an ongoing discursive recognition that this is something that is disputed and over which political battles are, and will continue to be, fought.

What interests me about our attitudes towards freedom and security, however, is illuminated brilliantly by the Olympic torch (if you’ll pardon the pun) – it’s the way in which this discourse of ‘security’ can be misappropriated as an abstraction which is then used repressively by those with power. I should be clear that I’m not talking here about the debate about whether in a particular instance it’s reasonable to view a particular individual or action as a threat to a notion of security that we hold in common , such as how much we should worry about terrorist attacks; whether or not we think that there is a realistic threat of terrorist attack, and whatever we think should or shouldn’t be interpreted as the indicators of such a threat (such as the debate around racial profiling for anti-terrorist purposes), we do at least all roughly acknowledge that should a terrorist bombing of civilians take place, that would be a violation of a type of ‘security’ to which we are all entitled.

What I’m talking about are questions which have nothing to do with risk of death or injury, of integrity of the private home from intruders, etc. These questions can be re-framed as questions of ‘security’, bringing them under one of the most powerful and guarded political categories and lending them the kind of seriousness and concern with which we debate terrorism or armed robbery. Often in political-philosophical debates, categories are constructed, the appropriate reactions and attitudes towards them are determined, and then people try to sneak things which fall outside of a category into it in order to shield it with the legitimacy of real members of that category, and that’s often what happens with the Olympic Games and similar events in general, but the torch is a particularly good and clear example of this.

The TST are “tasked with ensuring the continuity of the Olympic flame”, in the words of the BBC; one member of the team stated that “If anyone of any age threatens the security of the flame or torchbearer, we need to move that threat away quickly”. Note the interesting language in “security of the flame” – what does it mean for a flame to be ‘secure’ or not? The concern is not even stated as being the security of the torch, which one might construe as protecting it from damage theft, perhaps – rather than the more natural ‘torch or torchbearer’, we get the presumably intentional ‘flame or torchbearer’; not only this, but the same police team “protect a mother flame in a lantern during the day, while officers take turns to sleep with it in their rooms overnight”. The concern here is clearly with the continuity of the actual flame, which is considered to have symbolic (political?) importance.

We should really ask ourselves as a society whether we think it is appropriate to employ agents of the state en masse to guard the symbolic continuity of a torch flame, at cost to society, in order to foil attempts to touch, steal or even (God forbid) extinguish the torch. We should consider whether legally backed and endorsed ‘flame bodyguards’ should be able to push, manhandle, tackle and arrest people who threaten the continuity of the flame (particularly considering the bloody thing goes out all the time anyway). What kind of a society are we that we think young people should be tackled from bikes and pinned to the ground for cycling too close to something that they have been taught by their elders to believe is a historic event that they should bear witness to?

Similarly, where do we think the line should be drawn when it comes to the police interfering in our lives? The vast majority of the populace, however cynical or jaded they may (justifiably) feel towards the police force, recognise that some of its functions are necessary or helpful and that some of its employees do their best to serve the community. It is a fact of social life in the UK that the police have the power, in pursuit of these ends (if also in pursuit of less admirable ones or through problematic means) to arrest, to detain, to question, to search, etc; quite rightly, these police powers have limits and conditions governing their use.

Yet we live in a society which is so lax towards its heritage of ‘liberal’ thinking that nobody bats an eyelid when a man is stopped and questioned by police just for wearing a Batman costume and the officers ‘suggest’ that the man should cease his work for the day due to the policing operation surrounding the Olympic torch relay. Surely there comes a point where even the most conformist among us begins to feel that the police have an attitude of casual superiority and consider civilians merely as objects of power to be managed according to a schema convenient for political and policing purposes? This low-level contempt for, and condescension towards, the public is widespread – as those of us who more regularly have contact with the police as objects to be managed (such as urban youth, political campaigners, etc) know all too well. In 2009, officers tasked with torch security caused hospitalising head injuries to a journalist in Vancouver.

This attitude isn’t limited to the police but is displayed at times by others who hold power or work in a disciplinary capacity, such as teachers or politicians. It is often at its worst when dissenters are seen as trying to ‘ruin’ something or as a ‘nuisance’ to other citizens, even in the absence of any real illegality or danger. In 2006, the Italian Interior Minister said that “Law enforcement officials are doing all they can so that [protesters including anti-globalisation groups] can’t provoke more serious damage to the image of our country”. The Prime Minister (which was Berlusconi at the time) declared “zero tolerance” for protesters, stating that the government “may take drastic measures” to prevent the country’s ‘image’ being affected.

Similarly, the theoretical legal relationships that are intended to protect us from abuses are frequently overlooked or circumvented in these kinds of situations. In 2008, Chinese “torch minders” were left to their own devices to bully and harass torchbearers, manhandle and detain members of the public, and generally act like they owned the place – not only in China but also when they toured the world accompanying the torch to other countries (including in London). Various bodies and agencies, including the Greater London Authority and the British Olympic Association, who could have overseen and taken responsibility for their actions simply disavowed any connection to them, and the police left them free to do as they wished despite their complete lack of legal powers outside of their own country.

In every case, “security” is given by way of excuse and explanation. But ‘security’ is a word we associate with bodily safety, with the protection of rights, with freedom from harassment – not a word that we would generally use to refer to stopping a torch from going out or being touched by an Italian restaurateur. When those embedded in systems of power like politicians and police officers tell us that young people must be pushed from bikes and pinned to the floor for the sake of security, what they fear is harm to ‘image’ or ‘message’, not bodies or communities. This shows through in their more candid moments – despite attempts to position the Olympic torch behind a phalanx of vague concerns about security, conjuring up images of Islamic terrorism in this day and age, it should be evident that the supposed symbolism of a shoddy metal torch should not be allowed to substitute for the freedom to get on with our daily business, to take part in the spectacle, or even to protest.

The ‘security’ of the Olympic torch symbolises everything that is wrong with the Olympic Games, not their positive potential. The continuity of the flame should remind us of the attitudes adopted and measures taken to guarantee that continuity – the Olympic torch most closely resembles the torch of the Witchfinder General.

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New Year, New Labour

by Anne Archist

Labour are trying once again to re-invent themselves; 2012 has already seen a new attitude that amounts to exhuming the short-lived corpse of Blue Labour.

The media identified prior ‘re-launches’ under Miliband’s stewardship in June of last year and November of the year before, not to mention that his election as leader was itself supposed to de-toxify the Labour brand after the Blair-Brown years. Each previous attempt also utilised Maurice ‘The Baron’ Glasman’s “if you can’t beat them, imitate them” logic; this time, though, the leadership’s ‘Kinder, Küche, Kirche’ ideology has been dressed up in Beveridge’s old clothes, saved for just such an occasion.

The Baron was disappointed to learn that Jon Crudas had skipped Sunday service.

Blue Labour is enough to make a Marxist miss Brown Labour. At least Gordon ‘Golden’ Brown realised it was “the economy, stupid” and had some tentative ideas what could be done about it – The Baron would rather have us believe that modern society’s inexorable autosarcophagy can be stemmed by getting more bums on pews at St Saviour in the Marshes. Liam Byrne is the whipping-boy tasked with the triumphant fanfair, and is at least an improvement on Glasman. The Baron wrote and said the sorts of things that would make you choke on your bourbon biscuit in shock as you casually perused the Guardian website over a cuppa. Byrne is the kind of character who might make you emit involuntary Marge Simpson impressions, but not cough up crumbs and hot tea over your keyboard.

The big news is that Labour are “reclaiming [Beveridge’s] vision, learning from his political courage, understanding what has gone wrong in recent years as well as what has worked”; they must “become the radical reformers again”. Like a student who forgets to attach their essay to the e-mail, Byrne seems to have all-too-conveniently left out the details. There are hints at what the new approach to welfare policy might be, and some of them aren’t pretty.

Encouragingly, Byrne savages the current system’s treatment of the ill and disabled, and ends on a high note: “Beveridge’s first principles are the right place to begin”. But the warning signs are all there, and we have come to expect no better from ‘triangulated’ Labour: “Beveridge would have wanted determined action from government to get communities working once again, not least to bring down that benefits bill to help pay down the national debt”, “He never saw unearned support as desirable”, so “let’s restore the idea of ‘something for something’”.

Image

Now, as it happens, although Liam Byrne was neither born nor elected in my local area, he was educated here in his adolescence. I would like to think, then, that having experienced a world where around 30% have no qualifications, unemployment has frequently hit 10% or higher (with youth unemployment particularly high and a relatively high number of people never having worked), there is a high measure of overcrowding and 30% live in council housing, Byrne might have some understanding of the problems facing – and generally the lives of – those who rely on the welfare state in some form.

On the other hand, Byrne also sat on the committee that drafted legislation penalising phone usage by drivers, and then got a fine and points on his license for… yep, you guessed it, using a phone while driving. Perhaps, then, it would be too much to expect of him. While paying lip service to the content of Beveridge’s skilful and considered (though still imperfect) report, one gets the impression that Labour are more keen to vicariously cash in on its kudos than to implement its ideas as policy. This impression is all the more forgivable in light of New Labour’s record, and especially given the continued influence that Glasman’s ideas exercise over the party leadership (despite the formal dissolution of the Blue Labour project after the aforementioned ugly comments made by The Baron himself).

It would be a massive coup if Labour could produce something like the Beveridge report these days. Of late, state-commissioned research has been getting more slapdash and significantly shorter, with all of the loss of detail, balance and elucidation that implies; consider the 2010 Browne report into Higher Education, a total wash-out weighing in at only a nominal 60 pages (which is misleadingly high considering that ~5 pages of that are taken up by appendices and references, and the report itself contains more blank space and pictures than your average colouring book). The 1963 Robbins Report into Higher Education, to put that into perspective, had 335 pages. Obviously I’d rather give the number of words since this is a better standard of comparison, but this is difficult for technical reasons and you get the picture at any rate.

Beveridge struggles to find anything of any intellectual merit in the Browne Report.

It’s not just a question of the length of the report and the level of detail and the development of the logic that was possible as a result. It’s also a question of the mind and principles behind the recommendations; the principles were laid out honestly, the best practical application was explained meticulously and with sharp insight. As Liam Byrne points out in his article, the general public responded so positively that there were queues to buy the report. Beveridge strips his subject matter bare and builds his thought process up in a clear and honest way that can be followed by anyone inclined to do so, rather than filling the text with jargon or tacitly presupposing a narrow ideology. If every report were like the Beveridge report, bureaucracy would not be such a bad thing.

Labour have two choices. They could attach a dynamo to Beveridge’s coffin and prove themselves partially useful by forcing him to spin – with a bit of luck they might be able to power a constituency office with the electricity generated. Alternatively, they can take the challenge seriously and commission talented intellects to conduct a wholesale enquiry into the modern benefits system and its intersections with other areas of state and market activity. Taking this route would mean considering not only issues like the incentives provided by child benefits, but also the relationship between wages and benefits in their various forms, the future of social housing stock, the feasibility of full employment (which Beveridge assumed in his report), etc.

While it may not be immediately apparent, these questions are vital to understanding why the benefits system works as it does, and how it might work differently. The level of benefits or the conditions associated with them do supply incentives to act in one way or another, but they do not do so in a vacuum. The consequence of a particular policy (setting a threshold just so, or banning this type of person from receiving that payment) depends hugely upon other social variables that exist alongside the benefits system but are not themselves part of it. Even Byrne’s colleague Diane Abbott made this point effectively when she noted that the housing benefit bill “reflects a conscious political decision by successive governments to subsidise (mostly) private landlords rather than invest in affordable council housing”.

While we’re looking at benefits from different angles, let’s also remember that there are more things in heaven and earth, neoliberal, than are dreamt of in your economics. It shouldn’t be a surprise if someone values 15 hrs of their time more highly than the £15 difference it would make to their income. We should re-evaluate which factors are taken into consideration in determining payments and how – should 2 friends living together get any more or less than 2 partners living together? We should be clear about what sort of behaviours we are incentivising or penalising and why – do we want less children (say, for environmentalist reasons) or more (to counteract the aging population and pay for their parents’ pensions and healthcare, perhaps)?

If a re-examination of the welfare state dodges problems like this then it will have ensured its irrelevance and its inferiority to the original. In fact, it’s tempting to suggest that Miliband might as well just re-publish and re-read the original Beveridge report in its entirety and apply the principles and arguments laid out in it to the contemporary situation, since it’s difficult to imagine the modern Labour party producing or commissioning anything of great positive significance.

Byrne hits the nail on the head when he says that what is needed is radicalism, though I doubt he has the stomach to put this concept into action – healing the malaise of the welfare state may mean rebuilding the entire taxation system from the ground up, ensuring structural full employment, introducing a universal minimum income (like that proposed by the Green Party), or other wholesale changes to basic components of our economy and society. Byrne is all bluster, but calling his bluff could yield real fruit.

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Police protests and the 1917 Petrograd mutiny

by Anne Archist

If there’s one thing that revolutionaries of all stripes, but particularly Leninists, love, it’s a situation that’s in some way comparable to 1900-1920s Russia. I’m not exception to this rule – and why should I be? After all, “those who don’t learn the lessons of history”, etc; understanding the past allows us to better get a grasp on the potential of the present and future, and to interpret events in light of historic parallels, to contextualise them as part of a trend, and so on.  It’s for this reason that I find discussions about police or military insubordination interesting.

For those of you that don’t know, there are apparently concerns that the police will now take to the streets against the very same cuts that they have been protecting by beating and locking up anti-cuts protesters. Well, not the very same cuts, because this time it’s their job. It reminds me of a song I love:

“When the day arrives that you become redundant,
Don’t get angry with the boss and call him names.
You must try to be objective get the matter in perspective;
See yourself as a component, just a cog that is defective,
And with fortitude accept the situation…
That the junk-heap is your natural location!”

Nevertheless, slagging the police off is a tangent – sort of. The thing is that although police are workers, they are nevertheless somehow different from other workers.

Why and how is this so? Well, for a start in this country they can’t legally strike. This means that they are put in a very unique situation in two regards: firstly, in that even basic trade union consciousness is bred out of them by superstructural means (“ideology” and the legal system); secondly, the compensation that the state provides for this inconvenience is relatively good pay and conditions, a serious negotiating attitude (rather than the dismissive one taken towards workers in most sectors), and so on. In addition to this, the state exercises a monopoly on police employment in a way that exists in almost no other industry. There are private doctors and nurses, even private soldiers (mercenaries), but no private police (security guards are by no means the same thing). The question of monopoly is not important, but it reinforces the importance of the fact that the state is selective in who it recruits to the police.

It is selective in more-or-less obvious ways (you would expect to have a criminal record check done when you applied, for instance!) but also in less overt forms; consider the fact that the metropolitan police have shifted towards a policy of only hiring those who have cut their teeth as Special Constables. Special Constables have to be able to give up a degree of their spare time for no pay – this automatically biases their intake towards those who are economically secure, youngsters from more well-off backgrounds, those not working multiple jobs or raising children. These are exactly the sort of people who might be expected to have less sympathy for protest movements, industrial action, youth dissent, etc. Various other accusations of a less structural kind have been levelled at the defenders of Law’n’ord’r – that they are psychologically geared up for brutality by being shown violent combat scenes before deployment at peaceful protests, for instance. I won’t hazard a guess at how true these accusations are or anything like that. For the time being, let’s just settle on the idea that the police can’t necessarily be expected to act as other workers would under the circumstances.

If this is the case, will the police protest in solidarity with other workers? The chances are that, initially, this is the furthest thing from their minds – they are probably planning to protest under the rationale that they are needed in order to ‘contain’ and ‘manage’ the protests of others affected by the austerity measures (after all, “my job is so much more important than theirs”…) and therefore to juxtapose themselves to us as our antithesis, our ‘solution’. The question is not so immediate, however. Will there come a time in the near future when the police decide to work in solidarity with other workers? I’m still sceptical, and in order to explain why I’m going to invoke 1917.

In 1905 (yes, a little further back, but it’s just a pit-stop), soldiers opened fire on the people peacefully processing towards the winter palace, who intended to give a petition to the Tsar,  who was then an absolute monarch with complete power (even being idolised as akin to a god, in fact). This spurred on the protest movement and was a defining event in shattering the illusions that the Russian people had in the Tsar; they now looked on him as a despot rather than as the “little father” (in contrast to the “big father” in heaven). Fast-forward 12 years and Russia is swept by a wave of strikes, marches, meetings, etc. Dissent is everywhere. In a matter of days the troops go over to the socialist movement, provoked to mutiny by the Tsar’s orders to once again open fire on a peaceful movement. They become embedded in proletarian structures instead of the military hierarchy; it is significant that the councils formed by the working class were known as the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.

It was significant, that is, in two ways. It showed that the soldiers were sufficiently agitated by their experiences to become a real and vital part of the oppositionist claim on state power. So much so, in fact, that Lenin considered them too embedded in the proletarian movement and wrote a short polemic against the soldiers’ over-representation on the soviets. What it also shows, however, is that the soldiers were not considered in and of themselves workers. If they had been, the name would have been redundant, and comparisons between “the soldiers” and “the workers” would have been phrased as “the soldiers” and “other workers”. Admittedly, police and soldiers are not exactly the same, but this reinforces my feeling that the police are not quite the same as other workers in some important sense(s).

Why did the soldiers mutiny? What stirred them up sufficiently to shoot or chase away their officers and go over to ‘enemy’ lines? Or more precisely, what made them do this when they hadn’t in 1905? Well, firstly, the protests were initiated by women, with International Women’s Day famously marking the real beginning of the revolutionary period. This didn’t mesh so well with sexist notions of feminine frailty still widely endorsed by the Russian church (and widely listened to); the soldiers refused to open fire partly because they held to sexist assumptions. Secondly, Russia was fighting in a world war that required almost total mobilisation; the ranks of the troops had been flooded with peasants in particular, only released from complete serfdom within living memory. These troops were probably more likely to be stationed in the garrisons that would have dealt with protest at home, as the regulars would have been needed at the front. Furthermore, the mutinies were not spontaneous – the various revolutionary groups were in contact with soldiers long before they rebelled, with propagandist literature being disseminated as far as the front, according to Bolshevik accounts.

Having understood the conditions behind the mutiny of the soldiers in 1917 and their obedience in 1905, can we conclude that the police will acquire a class perspective and find common cause with other anti-cuts protests? I imagine not. Today’s police show few qualms about beating up not only women but also children. They are not ‘proletarianised’, let alone drawn from a background of serfdom.  They do not see the putting down of revolt as an unnecessary distraction from the serious business of national defence and a hasty exit from a war they never wanted (if anything, some of them seem to enjoy the overtime).

I’m still in two minds, however – while I don’t think the police could possibly develop this perspective and act accordingly spontaneously, there may yet be room to force the occasion. The only possible hope for this would be a jaw-gritted by genuine support from the left that translated into a physical and significant presence. If we can mingle among off-duty officers, converse with them, show ourselves not to be the hooligan nutjobs they probably sincerely believe us to be, and make an approach of solidarity, it may be warmly accepted and eventually returned.

I’m still not enthusiastic about this. I’m more inclined to support the calls that are being made, straight off the bat, to attempt to police the police march. Thousands of students and workers successfully directing and kettling the police would be a sight to behold, and could even go a small way towards dispelling negative perceptions of protesters if well-behaved. We have to ask ourselves seriously about the political ramifications of whatever tactic we choose, however – would attempting to kettle the police simply aggravate policing on future demonstrations, make us look like ‘troublemakers’ in the public eye, and so on? Perhaps. We shouldn’t be tempted to opt for a tactic simply because it looks cool; unrelenting political thought is necessary when making game-changing decisions such as how to react to the kind of unrest in the enemy camp we are beginning to see.

 

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Filed under Current Affairs, Industrial Relations, Political Strategy, Student Issues, Uncategorized

Turning the anti-cuts movement political for real

by Anne Archist

Note: This article was originally written for The Commune, but they rejected it for being too reformist. It has since been edited to bring it up to date and expand on some of the arguments. I hope that this will allow it to contribute to current debates, especially those raised by Pat around the slogan “bring down the government” and the hollowness of “resistance” rhetoric (part II of that article). The closing paragraph’s assertion that “the left urgently needs to stop regurgitating warmed-over and largely unsuccessful ‘solutions’ from yesteryear in favour of open-minded discussion” was, ironically, in the original text and is not a response to The Commune’s decision not to publish it (although I originally used the term “creative” rather than “open-minded”, which I now feel better expresses what I was getting at).

 

My tentative idea of the moment is that proportional representation is an immediate demand that should be raised by socialists generally, but specifically by the anti-cuts movement. Since the New Labour project began, Marxists have been propping up an essentially bourgeois party as the ‘lesser evil’. Part of the problem is that our tradition has forgotten how to make real political demands of the kind it made through the ranks of the chartists, the suffragists and so on.

This idea of Labour’s being the lesser evil is only fully comprehensible because of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. In order to prevent a tory majority, it has been necessary to call for Labour votes even through the years of privatisation, manifesto pledge betrayals, warmongering, etc. Not only has this tied the hands of the left, it has caused them to drift further out of touch with many working class communities that have simply sunk into political apathy, etc. These are the much-discussed missing Labour voters – those who gradually became unable to grit their teeth and vote Labour even as the least bad alternative any more, but were too class-conscious (or just too cynical and defeatist) to vote for anyone else either.

It is not just the history of the New Labour project and the effects it has had on the left that has brought me to consider the importance of proportional representation, though. After all, why now? The latest triumphalist claim of the SWP and others is that we will bring down the government. We have to ask ourselves serious questions about what effect this would have – would the cuts be stopped? Labour don’t seem to be offering a strident vision of investment, redistribution and so forth. A graduate tax here and a Keynesian platitude there won’t fix the economy (at least, not for the long-term), let alone do it in a fair and progressive manner.

The conclusion we are faced with is that none of the major parties offers an alternative to the cuts consensus, they just offer different brandings – doubtless the Labour alternative is a shade better, but is a movement that started out by bringing down one government going to settle for a difference of shades? It will have to, as long as we don’t mount a pro-active political attack on the voting system alongside our reactive campaign of ‘resistance’ to the cuts. Bringing down a Labour government in these circumstances would merely shift the shoe back to the foot it started on – all governments under capitalism are ‘bad’, but Labour aren’t even close to the left end of the spectrum of possibilities. ‘Square one’ started with massive threats to public services, privatisation, etc under Labour!

There is another interpretation of the sequence of events unfolding before us. Labour, we are told by some, will shift to the left through the process of struggle. As the fightback is organised, Labour will necessarily (both as a result of genuine pressure from the rank-and-file left and due to its desire to bureaucratically control, and parasitically feed from, the movement) adjust to the objective circumstances and the groundswell of socialistic slogans like ‘full employment’ and ‘make the bankers pay’, according to this view. So far, this has failed to materialise.

Our experience is of a Labour party that has no policies and no real public profile under Miliband – it isn’t making hard-hitting announcements in the press or exercising great propagandist influence over people in their communities. It has surged ahead in the polls purely by being – once again – the least bad option, and moreover by being the only other major party. It is a historic moment when parties like the greens could easily beat Labour on policies and rhetoric, but fail to compete purely because of the voting system. However much minor parties might hate to admit it, there normally are reasons (media scare stories, ill-considered policies, etc) beyond FPTP that limit their success.

So what would Labour do? Perhaps they will try to shift the problem to the next Parliament again by sustaining a deficit, and even have some perverse success in presenting this as a ‘fair’, ‘progressive’ or ‘left’ measure. As one of my comrades has been fond of drilling into people’s heads, though, “there’s nothing particularly left wing about a deficit”. It’s difficult to imagine quite what Labour will do – other than make cuts and/or raise regressive taxes – if sufficient growth fails to materialise. Going back to education specifically, the best they might offer is a moderately progressive graduate tax. Remember all those old slogans about “…without illusions” and “…like a rope supports a hanged man”? It would be politically irresponsible to pretend that Labour will leap into action plundering the rich’s wealth like some kind of born-again Robin Hood after nigh-on two decades of “triangulation”, a policy of class collaboration that would have made even Whig trade-unionists blush.

My initial suspicion is that while we may succeed at softening the blow of the cuts (and fees in education), we won’t really win this battle. However, the battlefield of education will be a cornerstone economically, psychologically and ideologically; a victory here will shift the terrain of the wider questions in our favour. An anti-cuts movement that takes on a non-partisan but political character, attempting to open up political space monopolised by the major parties, could lay the groundwork for a long-term gradual transformation of British politics that might reinvigorate broad-left ideas, reintroduce real political influence (rather than minimal pressure on a decidedly bourgeois party) for the organised labour movement, and so on. Either way, new ideas are rightly emerging about the paucity of ‘resistance’ in and of itself as a spectacle of bravado that will achieve little. Maybe some of my ideas here are wrong, but the left urgently needs to stop regurgitating warmed-over and largely unsuccessful ‘solutions’ from yesteryear in favour of open-minded discussion. I hope that this analysis can at least contribute to spurring people on to do this.

 

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Filed under Current Affairs, Marxism, Political Strategy, Student Issues, Uncategorized

Julian Huppert MP on fees, cuts, and coalition

by Edd Mustill

This interview with Cambridge MP Julian Huppert was conducted before last week’s education protest in central London.

Cambridge MP Julian Huppert is one of those MPs that advocates of first-past-the-post dream about. Brought up and educated in the area he represents, he seems to embody the MPs’ attachment to their constituency which is regarded as so important.

Fees
Like his Liberal Democrat predecessor, he is a fellow of Clare College. As an academic, he is perhaps more concerned about higher education that some of his colleagues.

“I was one of the student campaigners, I led some of the marches in ’97 and ’98 when Labour were first planning to introduce fees. I think it’s a mistake, I think it’s the wrong way to get people to pay at all,” he says. “Having said which, currently it’s going to be very hard, with the economic climate there isn’t the money to put into it right now.”

However, he is quick to defend his senior party colleagues who have faced so much anger from students in recent weeks. Given that a majority of MPs want higher fees, he says:

“I think Vince [Cable] was placed in an impossible position. Actually he’s done a fantastic job in terms of bringing down the fees from what they would have been otherwise.” He adds: “Do you say I don’t think there should be fees so I’m just not going to play any part in this. Or do you say, look, the two main parties want to do this, we’re not going to win this one, so what I’m going to try to do is to make it as good as possible.”

These are words that perhaps won’t hearten any prospective students who want to see fees defeated in Parliament. Huppert explains that the vote on the fee rise will be taken separately to the rest of the Bill, and he will support the Bill as a whole if he loses on the fees vote:

“I will be quite happy to vote for the Act that introduces the rest of it because if we don’t and we’ve lost the thing on fees, then it would be perverse to say I’m not going to vote for supporting part-timers and all the rest of it.”

It seems even those who will rebel on tuition fees regard the bulk of the government’s proposals as largely “progressive.” Of the NUS pledge, which Huppert re-signed after the Browne Review published its findings, he says:

“There were two halves to the pledge. The first half was to pledge to vote against an increase in fees and the other to try to get a more progressive system, and we are doing the second half. Everybody within the LibDems is going to do the second half.”

Wasn’t the coalition agreement, that only allowed LibDems to abstain on this issue rather than vote against, already an abandonment of the first half of the pledge?

“I don’t think it was. We didn’t know what the government response [to Browne] would be, and I agree with what is in the coalition agreement which is that you come up with something that ensures universities get fair funding.” He adds, “There are so many better solutions to the problem. A graduate tax. There are ways of raising a graduate tax which would be much better than those being proposed.”

But he insists that he still believes in education free at the point of use: “Ultimately I think the correct solution is for it to be funded from central taxation.”

Cuts
Huppert accepts the government’s argument that the deficit needs to be closed quickly, although he says it is being dealt with by changes to the tax system as well as cuts.

“If we do it too slowly there’s a whole psychology about that, and what happens is what’s started to happen in places like Greece. The markets don’t trust each other, interest rates shoot up, the cost of borrowing shoots up as well,” he says.

His argument for public spending cuts is one that public sector workers have heard a thousand times before.

“We know that there is huge inefficiency, frankly, in a lot of things the government does,” he says.
“I think spending money by government is a bad thing; the good thing is what you get for it.”

Some in the public sector, such as police chiefs and fire authorities, have warned that they cannot avoid job cuts given the figures they have to work with. Is he worried that this will result in frontline redundancies, given the figure of 490,000 job losses that the government itself has raised?

“That figure is over four years, and a lot of that will be people retiring, leaving and so forth.” He adds: “In the last 6 months there were 300,000 new private sector jobs created. I don’t particularly mind whether people are working in the private sector or the public sector.”

He is quick to deny that supporting the creation of equivalent jobs with similar skill sets in the private sector implies the privatisation of services:

“No, not necessarily in the slightest. We’re not talking about privatising a service. It’s just that there are other jobs people can do which do not consist of having more bureaucrats.”

In defending the cuts, Huppert touches on an interesting point about higher education funding that is largely ignored. Because fees are not paid up-front, the government has to provide the universities with the money that covers them.

“Universities get the money for students from two sources; HEFCE teaching, and the fees income comes from the government,” he explains. “There is a large amount of money that will go from the government to the universities, from fees, but none of that money comes back in, in the whole time we are talking about.”

This means that charging higher tuition fees may not even save the government any money, especially as their expectations of how much of the debt will be paid back are based on unrealistic assumptions about how much graduates will earn.

Huppert thinks the best way of saving money in higher education is to have less people go to university in the first place. His criticism of the target of getting 50% of school leavers to university is one which has become common on the centre-left and the right alike. He wants to see more vocational courses.

“The fact that we are not good at training people to actually do things, has hit us very badly,” he says.

Coalition
Although Cambridge is much more than the university, it would be safe to say that Cambridge MPs rely less on party machinery to get elected, than on the amorphous mass of liberal-inclined students in the town. These are circumstances that perhaps allow the town’s MP a greater degree of independence than many others.

The day before our interview, Huppert had made the news for celebrating the loss of the last Tory seat on Cambridge City Council on twitter. Labour had won, and the LibDems only came third. “Cambridge is officially Tory-free. Very satisfying!” he tweeted.

Such an episode might betray some of his feelings about his coalition partners, but Huppert doesn’t have a kind word to say about the Labour Party, describing their position on fees in particular as opportunistic. They have no alternatives, he says, to what the government is doing:

“I think their line that ‘We’d cut stuff, we’re not going to say what,’ is really pathetic. It’s really tragic when you have a political party like that, which is now betting everything on the economy collapsing.”

However, he was keen, after the election, for the LibDems to at least explore a coalition with Labour, but not for the usual reason.

“I do not count the Labour Party as a progressive party,” he says. “On some things the Conservatives are being more progressive than Labour have been, which is astonishing. The fact that Labour weren’t prepared to introduce a bank levy and the Conservatives are is astonishing.”

“Labour’s starting point was essentially that we had to support their manifesto. I remember when we had the report back from the first negotiation sessions. We had to support a third runway at Heathrow, we had to support ID cards, we had to support fees at £7,000 per year.”

He does admit to being slightly worried about his party’s poll ratings since they went into government with the Tories, but says: “They’re always very low at this time of the year. It’s a per cent or two lower than typical, but that’s what happens.”

Huppert acknowledged that the fate of the coalition, and of the Liberal Democrats themselves, is tied to the economy. But he is adamant that the party is healthy: “Membership has gone up. We have lots of new members coming and joining.”

Nevertheless, regardless of how he votes, it’s difficult to imagine how these new members will replace the party’s student electoral base which seems to have been so comprehensively trashed.

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On the eve of the Spending Review

by Edd Mustill

Tomorrow we will find out just how much the government intends to cut over the next four years. No doubt the details will be left to each department to work out; public sector workers will have to live in uncertain fear for a while longer.

We have written before on this blog about how these cuts are about much more than saving money in the short term. They are part of a project for the transformation of society. If carried to their conclusion, they will make the welfare state seem to history like an aberration that last for a few decades.

Ideological cuts

The ideological nature of the cuts is clear. Some, like axing the UK Film Council, simply make no economic sense. Other sectors are being boxed into a corner through cuts. This is happening in Higher Education. The combination of the Browne report’s recommendation for unlimited fees, and the threat of unfathomable cuts to government funding for teaching, has strengthened the minority current in academia that believes a move to an “American model” is now the only way to sustain universities at all.

The transformative, ideological nature of the cuts means that the Keynesian arguments against them are severely limited. Keynesians of various hues argue that increased spending is actually the better way to close the deficit, that cuts will cause unemployment and decrease the government’s tax base, making things financially worse. If the experience of Ireland is anything to go by, they are right. Ireland is facing a double dip recession and a brain drain, after introducing austerity measures earlier than the rest of Europe.

But the government can’t be argued away from its cuts policy on the grounds that it makes no economic sense, because it is not primarily about economics. George Monbiot is right to say that, for neo-liberals, this is an opportunity more than a crisis. There is a window of opportunity for the welfare state to be buried and for the private and “voluntary” sectors to vastly expand.

In any case, members of the ruling class are shielded from their own programme; why worry that the state education system is breaking down when you can afford to send your children to private schools? Why worry about underfunding in the NHS when you can go private? Why worry that the social housing budget is cut in half when you live in Millionaire Mansions?

Nevertheless, within the ruling class there are those who are voicing opposition to harsh austerity packages. Some are undergoing a rapid and suspicious conversion to Keynesian economics, while others are perhaps just worried about the potential political firestorm that these cuts will create.

Within the government itself, tensions have become more apparent within the Liberal Democrat party. The government is still solid at the moment, but it is becoming clear that it is a government that can be forced to make concessions. If it suffers even a couple of short-term climb-downs, the idea that There Is No Alternative will start to break apart. A defeat on any issue will, from the government’s point of view, set a dangerous precedent. This is why, for example, the stakes in student politics are suddenly a lot higher, because fees are a potential wedge issue that could damage the government.

Unions’ response

The Trades Union Congress also saw a bit of a division this year between those, led by Brendan Barber and Dave Prentis, supporting an entirely legalistic strategy and others, like Bob Crow, who warned of civil disobedience. The TUC’s time scale for anti-cuts campaigning is almost unbelievably slow, with a demonstration planned for March next year, by which time many public sector workers may already be staring at redundancy notices.

It remains to be seen how far tactical differences within the trade union movement on how to fight cuts indicate different views on the role of trade unionism generally. Do the more left-wing union leaders want the same old stuff – 24 hour strikes, marches and rallies – but more of it?

Current laws regarding industrial action are so restrictive that, in order to be effective at all, strikers have to be prepared to break them. This will apply to any new ones that might be passed by the coalition government. This can and has worked recently. The Lindsey Oil Refinery strike last year saw not only a victory, but the spectacle of trade union general secretaries pledging money to fund what had begun as an illegal action, and being forced to “officialise” it. This dispute was not only a wildcat strike (illegal), but also provoked sympathy action (also illegal). Workers also used a form of secondary picketing to spread the word to other sites (probably illegal).

There will be opportunities for more militant types of trade unionism to develop. Labour MP John McDonnell is trying to popularise the right to strike with his private members’ bill, and is absolutely right to do so even though the bill will obviously fail. The idea that withdrawing your labour is a right needs to be deeply embedded in the face of a ruling class offensive. A willingness to break unjust laws has characterised successful mass movements from womens’ suffrage to the anti-Poll Tax campaigns. It is something which, for example, sections of the current environmentalist movement take up with enthusiasm.

The Left and the unions

This is a period that, more than any for a long time, requires the Left to develop serious and consistent strategies towards trade unions and industrial struggle. This is something that the National Shop Stewards’ Network is probably best placed to do, rather than setting itself up as another “general” anti-cuts coalition.

Cuts will fall differently in different areas. Their harshness and time scale will vary. They will generally effect workplaces where two, three, or more unions will have members. The importance of union reps’ networks in sustaining and expanding action will grow. They can draw on the traditions of past shop stewards’ movements – not being anti-official for the hell of it, but being in a position to provide leadership as and when the officials won’t. The Lindsey strike was run by a committee of stewards from both unions involved. Recent strikes like the postal dispute have shown that the absence of a rank-and-file movement leaves the direction of the strike in the hands of the leadership, which can stall it or end it entirely.

It is possible that the spending review will not be as bad as some of the leaks that have emerged have suggested. Even so, it will still propose absolutely unprecedented cuts. The general anger will soon find its way into every public sector workplace as the details of the cuts are worked out in the coming weeks and months.

The Left needs to work with trade unionists to provide advice that goes beyond “Follow the French/Greek workers!” and “General Strike Now!” The constraints of the law and the weakness of shop stewards’ organisation are the two biggest obstacles the union movement needs to overcome in order to fight effectively. Building rank-and-file union organisations is a matter of urgency.

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Action against the cuts: ‘Resistance’ or actual political strategy? (Part I)

By Patrick

Richard Seymour has initiated a discussion on the New Left Project about the cuts and how to oppose them. Unsurprisingly, he calls for ‘a multi-party, multi-organization, trade union-based united front, the sole criterion for unity within it being agreement on the objective of preventing the cuts and advancing alternatives.’ He doesn’t say exactly what this united front will do, or how it will ‘obstruct the cuts agenda [and] also create a crisis for the government’. I assume the tactics he envisions are those espoused by the large anti-cuts campaigns like Right to Work, and the Coalition of Resistance: strikes, demonstrations, the occupations, and so on.

There’s been a lot of talk on the left generally about ‘resistance’ to the wave of austerity now sweeping Europe.

Riots and general strikes in Greece, huge demonstrations in Ireland, public sector strikes in Spain. The basic assumption about this ‘resistance’ is the more the better – once ‘resistance’ reaches a certain level – once the general strike is long enough, once the demonstrations are big enough, the cuts will be defeated, austerity will end, and the rich will be made to pay for the economic crisis. However, no-one ever explains exactly how this resistance will grow, and exactly how it will defeat the austerity program.

A logic of ‘resistance’, of pure anger mechanistically resulting in struggle, of a fierce fight necessarily resulting in victory, is ridiculously simplistic. Let’s look at Greece: we’ve seen a series of general strikes with more than half of workers walking out for a day. In May we saw regular demonstrations of hundreds of thousands (in a country of only 11 million), we saw riots and an attempted storming of parliament. But austerity has rolled on – the international financial markets and the IMF have forced the ruling ‘socialist’ government to adopt a harsh programme of budget cuts, and no amount of ‘resistance’ appears able to stop this.

Something is wrong with ‘resistance’ as a mode of action, something is incomplete. The crucial elements are inadequately linked together. What is needed is an understanding of the project of austerity, leading to a strategy of struggle, and a programme of transforming society.

Understanding Austerity

Many argue that the UK does not need to cut public services by 25%. Sunny Hundal argues that we should proclaim ‘the cuts won’t work!’: many social Democrats and centre left economists are saying that harsh cuts may tip the country back into recession, and maybe start a deflationary spiral in the short and medium term.

However, the Tories (ConDems, LibCons, whatever you want to call them) are not just stupid, economic illiterates who are taking Britain down an ill-conceived path to ruin, egged on by ‘bond vigilantes’ in the financial markets. They aim to slash the state whist raising regressive taxes for a reason: harsh austerity is part of a transformational project, and it’s only beginning to be revealed.

George Osborne claims that the ‘bloated’ public sector is ‘crowding out’ private enterprise, he claims that, once public spending is cut, private sector growth will accelerate, creating more jobs than were cut from the public sector.

This may actually be true – a period of mass unemployment will follow budget cuts over the next few years, wages will be driven down as people search for work anywhere they can, more people will be forced to buy services from the private sector, as public services will be crumbling, and a few years of uncertainty will discipline country’s workforce, ensuring that they prepare themselves for work in a casualised private sector – that is, long hours, few benefits, and little or no union representation.

We may find ourselves, five years hence, with a booming private economy, with growth coming from private schools, private hospitals and the security industry. This situation would be characterized by a high cost of living combined with low wages, harsh discipline in work, and a very low level of trade union membership. Everything from hospital administration to state schools will be run (if not funded) by the private sector, and though unemployment may be quite low, every job will be a McDonald’s job – disciplined, regularized, with crap conditions and no creative outlet whatsoever. If you want to see this future, talk to someone who works in one of the academy schools run by a major bank or a religious nut.

Once the project is complete – it’s game over – unions will be even weaker than today, schools will have the last bits of progressive education eradicated, the NHS will be practically privatised, students will have no time for political action amidst their two-year business degrees, and workers will have no energy for political action amidst casualisation, overtime, and low wages. Many poor and dispossessed people will have already turned to the easy answers offered by racism and fascism.

The project of austerity is about changing the society we live in, and it does have a logic to it. Austerity, unemployment and lower standards of living translate into increased control of the private sector over services, workplaces, and people’s lives. It will allow capitalism to bounce back with a vengeance. If we are to oppose austerity, we must understand and oppose this logic.

[Coming up in Part II: Working Out a Strategy of Struggle]

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Nick Clegg: Economic with the truth and untruthful with the economy

by nineteensixtyseven

Continuing on the theme of Nick Clegg’s awfulness, it has emerged this week that he may have deliberately mislead the electorate over his position on spending cuts during the the General Election campaign.

First of all, Clegg said that he had changed his mind over the need for cuts because of public and private pronouncements from the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, in the aftermath of the election.  In an interview with the Observer, Clegg cited a telephone conversation with King on the 15th May as the reason behind his volte face: “He couldn’t have been more emphatic. He said: ‘If you don’t do this, then because of the deterioration of market conditions it will be even more painful to do it later.”  However, King said on Wednesday that, “I said nothing that was not already in the public domain. In the telephone conversation I basically repeated what I had said at the press conference [on the 12th of May]“.

It has now emerged that King spoke to Clegg on the request of the coalition government to set out his views on the danger of the UK’s debt situation and the threat of a sovereign debt crisis.  The Guardian notes that:

“Asked by the Labour backbench MP, Chuka Umunna, whether he felt comfortable being drawn into politically sensitive matters, King replied: ” I do not think central bankers ever feel comfortable when they are drawn into comments made by politicians. But on this occasion the government has asked openly in writing for me to express my views which I did at the inflation report press conference, and I was asked if I would accept a telephone call by the deputy prime minister on the Saturday morning. I think it would have been unreasonable not to have accepted that telephone call. I did so and I had a private conversation”.

Now, call me cynical but this looks suspiciously like the government used King to provide cover for their own pre-conceived ideological predilection towards cuts.  The Clegg-King conversation was on the 15th of May yet three days earlier, on the 12th, the coalition published an outline agreement promising “a significantly accelerated reduction in the structural deficit over the course of a parliament, with the main burden of deficit reduction borne by reduced spending rather than increased taxes.”

These suspicions, it appears, were well founded because on Thursday it was reported that Clegg actually changed his mind over cuts before the General Election, ‘despite publicly telling the electorate weeks before the poll that early deep cuts would be “economic masochism.”‘  On last night’s BBC 2 documentary ‘Five Days’ about the period following the election, Clegg replied to a question from Nick Robinson asking whether he changed his mind during the negotiation period, saying that “I changed my mind earlier than that … firstly remember between March and the actual general election … a financial earthquake occurred in on our European doorstep.”  If this is true then he certainly did not let the electorate in on his little secret, allowing gullible voters lend their support to the Liberal Democrats as a left-wing alternative to the Labour Party.

Another possibility raised by last night’s programme was that either Clegg mislead David Cameron over Labour’s supposed offer of electoral reform without a referendum, or Cameron mislead his MPs.  To be fair, politics is a dirty game and all parties understandably wish to maximise their hand in negotiations, but added to Clegg’s apparent dishonesty over cuts this raises the question whether we can believe a word the coalition says.  Although Cameron is “absolutely certain” that Clegg had been offered reform without a referendum, Clegg denies that he told Cameron this offer had been made:

“The perception, which I think was accurate, was discussions are out, and it might have been an offer that might had been made and might have been considered. In answer to your direct question – was it ever formally made to me? – no, it wasn’t formally made to me.”

Either Cameron lied to his MPs in order to swing them behind the coalition or Nick Clegg lied to Cameron during the negotiations.  One thing, however, is clear from these revelations:  certainly don’t trust Nick Clegg.

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Government cuts: The Forgemasters episode

by Edd Mustill

Deputy Prime Minister and MP for Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg, has defended the government’s decision to axe an £80m loan to Sheffield Forgemasters in the pages of the Sheffield Star. The loan was to be used for a giant steel press to make components for the civil nuclear industry.

Clegg explains, “If we hadn’t got control of the deficit, interest rates would be increased, making it more difficult for businesses in Sheffield to borrow money. Jobs would be lost.” Presumably, if the government has already “got control of the deficit,” they can scrap all these other cuts they keep announcing. The whole episode, coupled with Liberal-led Sheffield Council’s budget cut announcements yesterday, has contributed to Clegg’s growing unpopularity in the city.

Forgemasters has become a political football, despite the wishes of its management, with the Labour Party both locally and nationally aiming to score the goals. The Labour Party has not raised the possibility of the nationalisation of Forgemasters or the rest of the steel industry, just as it did not when Corus mothballed its Redcar plant when Labour were still in government. Ironically, their decision to leave Teesside to the ravages of the market was probably a major factor in them losing the Redcar parliamentary constituency to… the Liberal Democrats.

Labour have raised allegations that the cancellation of the loan was done at the behest of Andrew Cook, a Sheffield businessmen and Conservative Party donor. Although Cook was an opponent of the loan, it seems more likely that this was due to him sharing the coalition government’s free market ideology, rather than having his business benefit directly from a setback for Forgemasters, as Labour seem to have been trying to imply. Whether or not decisions on spending cuts correlate to whether projects are supported or opposed by Tory donors remains to be seen (see also, St Helena International Airport).

However, the government has been reticent to say exactly what the financial reasons for cancelling the loan were, other than the usual stock phrases about the country being broke and there being no money left. Clegg accuses the Forgemasters loan as being one of the “cheques the government knew would bounce.” But a loan would presumably have made the government money through interest in the long run, unlike a simple cash injection or unconditional bailout.

Forgemasters is an easier issue for Labour to agitate around than most, because of the historical and emotional pull of Sheffield steel. Forgemasters has held out as the Don Valley steel industry around it has decayed and rusted, by taking on specialist projects such as that which this loan was supposed to go towards. But it should be remembered that demanding that a government loan money to a private company is hardly radical. Remember those banks?

Even nationalisation on its own isn’t much of a demand any more, as the banking crisis has shown us. Banks like RBS which have been in theory owned by “the people” through the government owning a majority of shares, have no more obligation to help out companies like Forgemasters, or for that matter treat their customers better, than any other bank. It is likely, in this case, that a democratically run RBS would have lent to a democratically run Forgemasters.

The Forgemasters episode may not be at the top of the agenda for environmentalists and those of us with qualms about the use of nuclear power (although it is probably worth mentioning that the company is also moving into hydropower too), but it does raise among other things the question of exactly how socialists should call for workplaces to be run. This has also been raised recently on the Isle of Wight, where some former Vestas workers have set up a new blade factory. The high profile but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to save the Vestas plant a year ago was one in which socialist activists were heavily involved, and where the RMT played an admirable role in organising a largely un-unionised workforce. But it seems that the new company is not a workers’ co-operative or union-run venture, although it has declared its intention to try to employ former Vestas workers.

As the days go on and it becomes increasingly blatant that the consultative plans and voluntarism of the Big Society have nothing to do with democracy when the government sticks to its cuts mantra, perhaps raising ideas about workplace democracy, currently so far outside the political mainstream, is one of the best ways of fighting cuts and popularising socialism.

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